Painting the Bones V Hydra

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In a previous post post I talked about how it was a change of pace for me to paint this large hydra figure because of the difference in size and subject to what I paint most often. Now I’d like to share a little of the actual painting process for this miniature.

Hydra - finished, view 1It’s not too late to get this and hundreds of other figures at much lower than retail prices.

Planning Phase

My first step was making a plan of action. This is the stage where I consider different colour scheme ideas, what might be the best order to paint areas, things like that. In this case I did not take very much time and effort at this stage. I was on a deadline and not wanting to psych myself out about the aspects of painting something less usual for me.

And my experience in painting this figure is an example of how not spending a little bit more time in thought beforehand likely cost me a chunk of time in execution. I had some broad colour scheme direction via photos from Reaper’s art director, Ron Hawkins, but I didn’t take the time do do any colour tests. With some minis, I spend a bit of time working out my exact colour choices on paper before I start painting on the figure. I decided to wing it with this one, and I didn’t get it right on my first try.

Colour Complexity and Variation

One thing I did think about a little was colour variation. This is a subject I often end up talking with intermediate painters who are looking to improve their work to the next level. While painting shadows and highlights on an area adds some variation and visual interest, it only does so much. If you look at something the size of the hydra, or even a cloak or large expanse of skin, it gets a little samey to look at if the only variation is a difference between the dark, midtone, and light areas.

Bases color complexityTop: Shades of darker and lighter grey only.
Middle: Grey shaded with dark Burgundy pink, and highlighted with pale Caucasian flesh tone.
Bottom: Shades of darker and lighter grey for the value transitions, glazed over top with other colours.

These colour variations represent real world objects more accurately than you might think – reflections from surrounding materials on shiny objects, variations in skin tones like blush on the cheeks, colour shifting caused by a light with a colour cast, all kinds of things create varied colours on surfaces. And just as with many elements of art that reflect real life, it’s pretty common for artists to exaggerate these colour variations to create a more interesting piece.

There are a number of different techniques you can use to add some colour variation to areas. I talked about a couple of methods in a Reaper Toolbox video I recently completed. Michael Proctor is a master of colour use, and he also has a recent Toolbox video where he talks about some of his techniques.

Hydra view of light directionI visualized the sunlight shining from the direction of the tip of the hydra’s tail, but much higher in the sky.

In the case of the hydra, I relied primarily on shifting the colours used to paint the lights and shadows, as in the middle photo of the example above. I added a little more visual interest to things by shifting the direction of the light to one side of the figure, and using some colour contrasts in my (eventual) paint choices. I visualized the light as bright sunlight streaming from the direction of the tip of the tail. This created a situation where one side of the creature would appear more in light, and the other side more in shadow, with some interesting interplay of light and shadow on the necks.

Airbrush Misstep

Several people have asked me if I used an airbrush to paint the hydra. My answer is yes and no. I did try to start with an airbrush. it seemed like a perfect fit for a large creature like this, and handy method to lay in the broad strokes of the directional light I planned. It took me a few hours of painting over a couple of sessions (my compressor overheated the first session!), but eventually I ended up with this.

Wip1a Hydra airbrush stageThe more lit side after the airbrush stage. Crummy cellphone photo.

It looks pretty dull in the photographs, and that’s not because they’re just crappy cell phone pics – it looked pretty dull in real life, too! Essentially I ended up with a sort of zenithal prime effect – it was a good guideline to where to place my shadows and highlights, but not much more.

Wip1b hydra airbrush back viewThe more shadow side after the airbrush stage. Cellphone photo.

Painting the Base

As I considered where to go from here, I realized that it would be tricky to reach all the areas of the base if the body were fully painted, so I decided to paint the base first. I talk about the techniques I used to paint the rocks in my recent Reaper Toolbox video.

Wip2a hydra painted basePainted base. Light side view. Cellphone photo.

The technique I used on the pillar pieces was a little different. I painted using my usual layering technique, but with some variation in the selection of colours for lights and shadows. I looked at some reference photos of Greek temples, and plenty of them are not perfectly polished white marble. Several seemed to have a fair bit of ruddy red showing on the pillars. So I started with a basecoat of cream, and used a clay red in the shadows. To keep the effect of the bright sunny day throughout the whole figure, I used some dark blue in the shadow areas of the pillars, and yellow in the highlight areas that are receiving full light.

Wip2b hydra base shadow sidePainted base. Shadow side. Cellphone photo.

Re-Colouring the Body

Now I had to figure out what to do with the body of the hydra for a more interesting colour selection. I decided to keep my main shadow colours, but swap in more saturated midtone and highlight colours. As with the rocks and the pillars, I was using dark blues in the shadows, and yellow in the highlights to simulate a sunny day.

Wip3a hydra base colour repaint light sideAfter wet-blending new body colours. Cellphone photo. View from the direction of the light.

The majority of the paint on the body and necks was applied with the wet-blending technique. I started with a size 2 round sable brush, but this figure was large enough that I switched to a bigger synthetic brush for most of the basic lay-in of colour transitions, using the size 2 on smaller areas or to refine blends. I used the light to dark transitions created by my airbrush stage as a guideline, but refined and shifted the location of light and shadow as I deemed necessary to create the effect of the lighting or make the figure more interesting to look at.

Wip3b hydra wetblending shadow sideAfter wet-blending in new body colour, view from the more shadowed side. Cellphone picture.

Forging a… Five Heads

I was much happier with the colour selection for the body than I was with my first attempt. However, I felt like using the exact same colour transitions on the head would not work very well. The heads need to stand out in some way to help the viewer spot them and connect with them. I did some experiments with a couple of patterns to see whether patterning would be a good way to make the heads stand out. Sometimes I’ll grab a similar figure to practice tricky freehand or do tests like this (Bones are great for this!), but in this case it was just as easy to test on the figure, and it is sculpted with such definition that a coat or two of extra paint wouldn’t be an issue.

Wip5 pattern testingTesting some ideas for patterning on the heads and/or neck scales.

I also decided to use more saturated colours on the heads than I had on the body. I switched out my brown shadow step for one that was more green, and swapped my kinda yellow highlight step for one that was a more intense yellow. The heads and spines scales were smaller areas and I was working with more transparent colours, so for these I used my usual layering techniques rather than doing any wetblending.

Wip4a hydra colour contrast between heads and bodyPainting completed on two heads. They are a slightly different colour scheme than the body to help them stand out to the viewer.

Lining the Scales

The next time I sat down to paint I wasn’t in the mood for fiddly blending with semi-transparent colours, so I decided to work on painting the lining between the scales instead. I talked about the technique I used for that in a previous blog post.

Hydra lining comboAdding lining between the scales makes a big difference in the appearance of a figure like this!

Once I had the lining in, I reevaluated my intention to paint some patterns on the heads and/or spine scales. The lining between the scales added a lot of texture and I felt like the contrast between that texture and the smooth blending on the heads would help keep the heads as the focus.

Belly Scale Dancing

Wip6a hydra blue belly scalesTest of a blue colour scheme for the belly scales. I used slightly different colours on the final version.

The last thing to figure out was the colours to use on the belly scales. As with the pattern experiments I decided to test right on the figure rather than grabbing a separate one or testing on paper. I wanted to pick colours that would stand apart from the belly scales, but not steal focus from the heads. The brown was a bit too bland. The blue worked better, but it was important to keep it muted so that it didn’t compete with the yellow of the heads. I tweaked the colours a little on the final version.

Wip6b hydra brown belly scalesTest of a brown colour scheme for the belly scales. 

Concluding Thoughts

As you can see from my experience painting this figure, one of the things to keep in mind when painting something that is different from what you normally paint is that the process is not likely to go as smoothly as usual. You have less experience to draw on, fewer helpful habits established. Even though I was painting this on a deadline, and I felt some pressure to make it look as cool as I could for the sake of the Kickstarter campaign and a few other reasons, I had to accept that I lost time to mistakes and having to do tests to avoid more mistakes. There would have been no value to beating myself up or getting too frustrated about it.

Display Painting versus Tabletop Painting

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I’m still working on a bit more of an overview post of my experience painting the hydra I showed in my last post. In the meantime, I was thinking about the conversations I had with people about painting at the countdown party. 

Hydra side viewLate pledges are available if you missed the Kickstarter campaign.

I was very happy to talk with people about painting and try to share some tips. My painting knowledge is built on a foundation of generosity of other artists taking time to share what they know, and I want to give back to the community in the same way. I also genuinely enjoy geeking out about one of my favourite things with other fans! But there were times when I felt like the information I shared was disappointing to people since a lot of it summed up to the big ‘trick’ in painting this was time and patience.

When you’re learning a new skill, you tend to assume that as you get better at it, you’ll be able to do things in a similar amount of time and with similar techniques, just better and quicker. Certainly there are skills or areas in which this may be true. I’m not a great cook. I could follow a recipe to make a pie crust, but it would take me a lot more time and effort than a professional baker or even a practiced and enthusiastic home cook. And my results would likely neither look nor taste as good as theirs. They have a lot more experience and possibly access to better tools than I do. However, there are also areas where neither expertise nor tools are the limiting factor. My pie is going to take about as long to cook as the expert’s, and there’s not much either of us can do about that.

Cmon speed paints - frontA group of pro painters including myself, Jen Haley, Elizabeth Beckley-Bradford, and Clay Williams painted these Robb Stark models in a 90 minute speed painting challenge at CMON Expo 2018. The figures benefit from our painting expertise, but display models they are not.

Now I’m going to look at a more art based example. Someone who is in the earlier stages of learning to draw can produce an accurate and realistic drawing, whether through use of tools like grid drawing or just sheer effort. I did some decent drawings in my early days of starting my learning traditional art journey. But just like my attempt to make a pie crust, they took a lot of time and effort on my part. And they weren’t the norm. There were a lot more terrible drawings than decent ones. That stands in stark contrast with the work of a skilled artist, who can do quick sketches that look attractive and realistic in a few minutes. That is the value of practice and repetition, but also a lot of knowledge and experience that the artist draws upon.

I think people look at something I’ve painted like the hydra and parallel it to the example of the two artists above. They assume it’s the ‘pro’ version of their tabletop or speed painted miniatures. But it’s not really an apples to apples comparison. It’s more like comparing a pencil sketch to a high rendered photo realistic drawing. There’s a foundation of knowledge that applies to both, and there are some similar tools and techniques. But one is not the evolution of the other. It’s more like siblings or cousins.

Cmon speed paints - back viewMy figure is the second from the right, and is the weakest of the bunch. The painters who are more successful at balancing speed and end result than I am picked colour schemes with much more contrast, and enhanced those with painting techniques that enhanced the pop of the figure, and then sprinkled a dash of an extra like weathering and/or freehand on top. I spent too much time worrying about blending.

A professional painter, particularly one who paints armies or other tabletop figures regularly for commission, is like the professional baker making the pie crust. They have good tools and materials, but also a wealth of experience to draw on to create a great looking result in less time than a beginner or casual painter. Something they speed paint might be to a standard a beginner is aspiring to do as a display painted piece. But a lot of high level display painting techniques we use are more like the baking time in the oven for the pie, or the time it takes to render a quick sketch into a fully painted picture – there’s no quick trick or tool that does the job for you, it just takes time and patience.

Hydra - pre scale liningA work-in-progress picture of the hydra before I painted in the lining between the scales.

The lining between the scales of my hydra is a good example. Using quick painting techniques, most people would line between the scales by using a wash of a darker colour. Or maybe they would start by painting a dark coat of paint and then drybrush or sidebrush lighter colours on top of the scales, leaving the lines in between them dark. This figure is sculpted with a lot of great definition, and those techniques should work well to paint it. But that’s not how I painted mine, and I don’t think you could use those techniques and get a result that looks like what I got.

Hydra - after scale liningThe same view of the hydra with the lining painted between the scales. It adds a lot of impact and texture!

The way I painted the lines between the scales of the hydra was… to paint the lines between the scales of the hydra. I used a fine tipped brush, patience, and a little over two hours of my life. The only ‘tip’ type thing I did that might not be obvious to the viewers is something that made the process even more fiddly, not less! I did not use a single colour of lining over the whole figure. If you compare the value (lightness/darkness) of an area of scales to the lining around it, you’ll see that it’s fairly constant over the whole figure. It looks that way because I used a lighter brown colour to line between the lightest colour scales, a blue-black to line between the darkest colour scales, and a couple of mixes in between. In total I used five values of lining. Possibly I could have gotten a similar effect with four or perhaps even three value mixes, but in for a penny, in for a pound is how I tend to paint. ;->

Hydra scale lining paletteThe dried liner mixes in my welled palette.

My analogies are to an extent a simplification. There is a gray area between tabletop painting and high level display painting. High tabletop, basic level display painting, I’m not sure what you’d call it, but the basic gist is something both fast and good. There are some limits to how fast you can paint like this, and just how good of a result you can get with this. It uses techniques from both ends of the spectrum, so if this kind of painting is your goal, it is worth studying information from display level painters. Most people who paint miniatures for a living probably paint to this level as much as they can – as good as you can get it to look, in the least time possible. But when they paint a very high level commission piece or a contest entry that pulls out all the stops, they use techniques that take a lot of time and skill, like individually lining every scale on the hydra.

That balancing act between end result and time commitment is one of the ways I am not very good at my job. I’m working at getting a little better at it, but through my entire miniature painting experience I have tended to use time and brute force and focused on the quality of end result, and done a poor job of learning increased efficiency and good planning to improve on time. Or even just learned to accept that a lot of the time 80% of the best I can do is good enough.

As a result, those who are seeking information on how to better balance high quality result and speed are probably better off consulting other painters. :-> Two of the best painters I know for this both share their experience on Patreon if you’d like to learn a lot more tips and tricks than you could from a quick convention conversation. (And they also teach full classes at conventions.) Look up James Wappel and Aaron Lovejoy.