Problem Solving: Tara the Silent Part 4 – A Sisterly Comparison

Please check the bottom of this post for information on where to buy these figure or receive a copy of the woman with the crossbow as a gift with purchase (during the month of May 2019).

In the previous instalments of this series (links later in the article), I walked through my work-in-progress steps of painting the figure Tara the Silent. My aim was to share the way I try to identify and solve issues during the process of painting a miniature. Progressing your painting skills has as much or more to do with improving your critical eye as it does with improving your brush and paint use skills. I think many people do not understand just how valuable it is to improve your ability to really see and analyze a figure (or other types of visual arts)! I know that I would have improved much more quickly and consistently had I been working on that as much as I focused on blending and other brush tricks.

It occurred to me that I could use Tara for one more exercise to try to help others build their critical eye. This exercise is one of comparison between two figures. Comparison can be as instructive as assessing a single work, whether that is a comparison of more recent work against older work, or comparing one artist’s interpretation of a figure against another’s. This exercise could also give you some insight to the challenges that contest judges face. You can imagine that these two figures are the final cut for a contest award, and determine which which you would choose and why. I will not share my analysis/thoughts until the section after the last picture. So if you want you can test your eye first, and then read my thoughts.

Anwyn and Tara, face viewsAnwyn the Bard is on the left, Tara the silent on the right. 

Although I have never before painted Tara, I have painted her ‘sister’, Anwyn the Bard. Reaper sculptors occasionally take a figure and do a significant conversion of it to create a different character. Werner Klocke first sculpted Tara, and then did a resculpt of the miniature to create the character of Anwyn. Even apart from the fact that the figures aren’t identical, this is more of a lemons to oranges comparison than an apples to oranges one. The colour schemes are quite different, even the cameras used to take the photos aren’t the same. But comparing like to like is pretty rare in comparison critique, and definitely rare in contest judging, so while the exercise is a little more challenging than a direct like to like comparison, it is an opportunity to practice the type of thing you’re likely to do more often.

If you’d like to review the previous instalments in this series, here are links:
Part 1: Colour scheme creation (and correction) on the fly.
Part 2: Spotting and solving conundrums of contrast.
Part 3: Giving the figure a thorough once over before calling it done.

Tara and Anwyn, front views

So what kind of factors could you look at when making a comparison? Likely the first elements that will jump out to many people relate to the colour scheme. We are very responsive to colour, and our initial reactions to colour tend to be visceral and subconscious. Building your eye requires a more conscious and critical assessment in addition to that emotional response. As a judge, I have often been a position of awarding high honours to something I might not personally ‘like’ in terms of colour selection or subject, but which is very skillfully done.

* Do the colours work together in a pleasing and effective fashion? (Depending on the subject and the intended scene, ‘effective’ may mean garish or gross colours that aren’t ‘pleasing’ in the traditional sense!)

* Does the colour scheme fit the character and the story/mood that the painter is aiming for with the figure/scene?

* What is the level of contrast between the colours of different areas, and within the shading and highlighting of individual areas? Is the level of contrast sufficient to visually separate different areas of the model and help the viewer identify what the various items on the figure are?

* What is the level of nuance and complexity in the colours? Are there subtle variations of hue within areas? Is there harmony in the shadow and highlight colours over the whole of the piece? Do the colours of the main figure(s) and the scenic element(s) work together and look like parts of a consistent whole?

Tara and Anwyn, right views

Brush skills are another key area to compare. 

* Precision of paint application, both in larger areas, and within areas for placement of sharp highlights and darklining as appropriate.

* The success of execution of details like eyes, small sculpted details, or pure painted details like freehand.

* Rendering of different surface textures – skin vs cloth vs leather vs metal vs wood vs dirt vs stone, etc. Is everything painted in a pretty similar way, or do these different textures stand out from one another in realistic and/or interesting ways?

* Consistency of rendering – is the overall level of the painting on the figure uniform? If you’ve ever wondered why something that looks fairly ‘plain’ scored higher in a contest than something with really great freehand or source lighting, consistency is often the reason. Doing an area or effect on a miniature spectacularly can fall short if the rest of the miniature is not up to a similar standard. That doesn’t mean that everything needs to have the exact same level of contrast or be super detailed! That is usually counter productive. You want to have areas of interest where the viewer focuses, and have areas that are less important fade into the background a little. But a miniature covered in detailed freehand standing on a base that’s had a quick wash and sloppy drybrush treatment isn’t as consistent as one with high quality but less flashy brushwork throughout the whole piece. 

(I will admit that consistency is an area where highly skilled artists can and have gotten away with doing things I just stated should not be done. Figures with errant brushstrokes, or areas that are barely base coated. Those of us of more modest talents are still well advised to aim for consistency as much as possible! I’ve also heard stories of people scoring lower or missing out on awards for having bits they ran out of time to paint to the standard of the rest of the figure.)

Tara and Anwyn, back views

Quality of preparation and the treatment scenic elements can make a bigger difference to a figure than it might seem. They might not jump out at first viewing the way colour and brush skills do, but they’re a critical foundation to those elements.

* Prep work – the figure itself is your ‘canvas’. No amount of brush skill can completely overcome a poorly prepared canvas. Removing mould lines is just the beginning. You may also need to fill in pock marks on surfaces meant to be smooth, accentuate textures, file or carve weapons to look a little more sharp or pointed, etc. 

* Assembly is also important. Gaps between limbs will break the illusion pretty quickly! A common issue is the attachment of the figure to the base. If the feet look like they’re floating slightly above the surface rather than firmly planted, the miniature does not look like it’s part of the scene and doesn’t look like it has weight and substance.

* It is important to paint basing materials and most vegetation type flock. It seems like you should be able to put small rocks or sand or whatever on a base and have it look like rocks and sand, right? But unpainted basing materials do not look in scale to a painted figure. They also don’t look like they’re part of the same scene lit by the same light source. Painting the elements of the base, and using colours you used on the figure in those elements makes everything look unified and more realistic.

The last comparison picture is below, so don’t scroll past it if you don’t want to read my analysis yet!

Tara and Anwyn, left views

I’ll be honest – I hesitated to post these comparison pictures. I painted Anwyn in 2006! I’ve improved in the last dozen years, but not nearly so much as I might have hoped or expected. I wish I had understood the concepts of deliberate practice and focused self-critique so much earlier than I did! (And truthfully I’m still struggling with incorporating those ideas completely into my painting process.) I worked hard to ‘get better’, but in such an unfocused and haphazard way. 

In the end I have decided to take my lumps and share this in hopes that it may help some of you get where you want to be faster and more efficiently. I know the lure of chasing the right brush, painting, blending technique, etc. is hard to resist. But it really is only half the puzzle. Training your eye to see better so you can identify specific issues in your work and iterate through working to improve them is immensely important.

The Photos!

I can’t help but be struck by the difference in the photo quality. My camera in 2006 was a $400-500 mid-range digital camera. The one I used to take photos of Tara is just a little better in quality (it’s a new technology class of camera, but it was also in the $500 range at time of purchase, so fairly comparable.) It’s now six years old and I am considering replacing it. Partly due to mechanical issues, partly in hopes of being able to add video to my repertoire. Both cameras allowed for setting white balance, f/stop, and other features useful to taking pictures of miniatures. Some of the difference is also down to my improving my photo taking set up with more lights, and use of a tripod, as well as using a grayscale card to help with editing the colours to look truer to life. I did re-edit the pictures from 2006 to try to make the comparison between photos a little fairer.

Colour Comparison

I quite like the colour scheme on Anwyn, and suspect many people will prefer it to that used on Tara. I’ve been thinking about having another go of that colour scheme for a while now, and I hope a figure it will suit presents itself soon. Tara’s colour scheme is fairly well suited to the character, but lacks a little oomph from an artistic point of view.

Although there are some nice areas of highlight on Anwyn, I think I have improved my level of contrast over time. There are much deeper shadows on Tara than on Anwyn, as well as stronger contrast between some colour areas. I think the contrast difference is most noticeable in the hair and the non-metallic metal. That said, Tara has some contrast issues and needs stronger and more small top level highlights throughout most of the figure. The level of contrast isn’t that noticeably problematic in a photo, but viewed at tabletop distance she lacks the desired level of ‘pop’.

When it comes to nuance and complexity in colour, there I feel I have made noticeable improvement. Anwyn’s colours play it straight, and that results in a bit of a plastic, artificial look. Shadows and highlights are just darker and lighter variations of the midtones. There is no added complexity of colour in the face like blush or interesting shadow colours. The lack of colour complexity/variation is particularly noticeable in the difference between the two bases. Both are pretty simple, but Tara’s seems much more ‘real’ and related to the figure, largely because of the way it’s painted more than the types of scenic elements used.

Brush Skills Comparison

I don’t think it’s particularly evident in the areas of detail in these two figures (eyes, darklining, and so on), but I am confident that my brush skills overall have improved. The end result may not be strikingly different, but at least the level of frustration and effort required to achieve it has changed!

I am much more conscious of painting different types of textures and surfaces now, and I think that is pretty evident in comparing these two figures. Every area on Anwyn is painted in the same smoothly blended fashion, with the possible exception of her hair. I was obsessed with achieving smooth blends, and I think that shows. Tara demonstrates a lot more of an understanding of different materials having different textures – rough stone, worn leather, wood grain, shiny hair, etc. The transitions on the NMM are a little more varied and better represent the way reflected light can appear than the perfect smoothness on Anwyn’s NMM.

Preparation and Scene Setting

Both of these figures are presented on very simple bases, so there’s not a huge amount to assess there. I do think that my ability to make a decent looking simple base has improved, though that may not be saying much. ;-> Anwyn’s base is very simple, and lacks a bit of variety that would make it more pleasing to look at. The flowers very much look stuck on instead of being a bit more naturally part of the rest of the foliage.

I’ve always been a bit fussy about prep, so there’s not a bit change to look at as far as that goes, either.

Conclusion

The end of the month crept up on me, so I’ve had to write this a bit more quickly than I usually prefer to do. Likely many of you will have spotted lots of issues with both of the figures or differences between them that I did not see. Feel free to share those in the comments. I am putting these figures out there to give people a chance to exercise their critique skills, so I have no problem with you tearing them apart. :->

NOTE: I thought I had set these pictures to display at a larger size. Clearly I’m still working out some blog technology. I will see if my IT department can help me post the pictures I intended.

You can purchase the Bones Black plastic version of Tara the Silent during the month of May 2019 (while supplies last). Orders made on the Reaper website during the month of May will receive one free Tara for every $40 (or other accepted currency) worth of pre-tax/shipping order. So if your order totals 82.99, you would receive two free Taras. A metal version of Tara is also available. Or you can buy a version of Tara sculpted by Sandra Garrity in metal. Anwyn the Bard is available in metal, or in classic Bones plastic.

Measuring Progress – More than “Better”

I think many of us tend to judge our progress of improvement in miniature painting by indicators like making first cut or placing in a contest, going from a bronze to silver then silver to gold medals in open shows, scores on sites like CMON or Putty & Paint, or even just getting a lot of likes and comments posting to social media sites like Facebook or Instagram.

Portraits combo1You probably think that the portrait on the right was drawn after the portrait on the left. (And some time after, at that!) You would be wrong. I drew them both last month, and the poorly drawn one was drawn after the better one. Yet overall I still feel pretty positive about my progress in learning to draw, and I think that I am improving. How can that be so? Read on to find out!

Contest placements and viewer responses absolutely can be valid markers of progress, and there’s nothing wrong with a little competitive spirit pushing you to strive and try new things! But when we rely only on those kinds of external judgments, we risk getting discouraged if they don’t come when we expect or when we feel like we need a little boost.  It’s also possible to plateau for a while in terms of the objective ‘quality’ of your paint job, but still be improving by other measures. It’s not necessarily that we don’t value these other measures, but often other types of improvement are subtle enough that we overlook them, or dismiss their value.

So today let’s talk about how ‘getting better’ at an artistic skill encompasses a lot more than just generating a more attractive looking end result.

Faster

Speed is definitely an area to consider. If you can paint a figure of the same quality today in half the time or 75% of the time, or even 90% of the time that it used to take you, then that is definitely getting better. Faster means you’re can paint more figures within your allotted hobby time, or that you have some additional time to spend on each figure to work on pushing your skills with techniques and effects that eventually will drive your quality up a notch.

For my fellow super slow painters, the reverse is also true! If you are still taking 10 or 20 or however many hours to paint a figure, but you’re also gradually improving the quality of each, that still means you’re getting better and making progress. Do not despair!

And an important note – I’m talking about improving your speed using techniques/paints/tools with which you are familiar. When you try new things, you have to accept that it’s going to take you longer with them than with your usual methods and materials! I mention this because I’ve definitely been in the position of feeling like I should be able to just pick up something new and run with it because I’ve been painting for X amount of time or at Y level. There’s always a learning curve. If anything, the more practiced you are with one method and set of tools, the more of an initial hurdle of time and discomfort that you might have when trying something new.

6m man better stronger fasterThey didn’t just rebuild Steve Austin to be BETTER. They also rebuilt him FASTER and STRONGER.

Stronger (or Easier)

When you first started to paint, almost everything seemed like a challenge and required a lot of focused concentration. Just figuring out how to hold the brush and the miniature and then getting the paint to go close to where you wanted it (and not on top of something else you just painted.) Then you start learning next steps like making washes or applying drybrushing, or maybe painting layers or wetblending. If you’ve been painting a while, likely you then tried your hand at trickier effects, like non-metallic metal or source lighting or whatever else.

Whatever stage of the miniature paining journey that you’re on, the elements you’re trying to master right now are challenging and often it may often seem like you take one step forward and two steps back. But very likely you’re forgetting how much you’ve learned in previous stages.

When you first started painting everything was challenging and required concentration. But if you stop and think about it, I bet there are skills that you’ve mastered so well that you now perform them almost unconsciously. Think back to the first few miniatures you painted or tasks that you really struggled with when you first started painting. Maybe you still struggle with lining or freehand, but isn’t it easier overall to get the brush where you want it than it was at first? Is it as tough to choose wash or shadow colours as it was before? Do you need to go back over sections making as many corrections for brush slips as much as you used to?

Whatever you’re working on now might still feel really difficult, but give yourself credit for all the skills that you’ve already mastered. That genuinely does count as ‘getting better’! If you really hadn’t improved at all, you’d still have to concentrate and work hard at every single element of prepping and painting a figure.

Hand versus Eye

You may not have a bionic hand and eye like Steve Austin, but the concept of the hand and the eye, or sometimes, the hand versus the eye, is very pertinent to building art related skills.

The ‘hand’ refers to the mechanical type skills related to painting – methods of manipulating the brush and the paint and similar things. People learning art skills tend to get really hung up on this aspect of it. We spend the majority of our learning efforts concentrating on elements related to the hand.

We spend much less time thinking or talking about the ‘eye’ part of the equation, which is unfortunate, because it’s a lot more important than we often think. The ‘eye’ element encompasses the idea of being able to look at something and really see it. This is a more complex concept that it might seem, and I imagine I’ll make future blog posts that delve into this in more detail in the future.

One example of being able to truly see things is referencing life. If you want to paint leather or hair or metal that looks convincing, you need to study those things in the real world. You have to assess where they look darker or lighter, the proportion of darker to lighter, what the natural colours of those things are in different lighting circumstances, and a number of other factors, and then try to figure out how to apply that information to a figure in a way that looks both pleasing and somewhat realistic.

Looking at something and really seeing it also applies to looking at our work and the work of others and assessing its strengths and weaknesses, as well as making comparisons. A person newer to painting can look at a really world class figure and a fairly good figure and genuinely not see major differences between them. Or they might see some differences, but not really be able to identify what those are.

The ability of your artistic eye grows just as your manual dexterity skills do. One of the things that can throw us is that they don’t always level up at the same time. If you are going through a period where you feel like everything you paint looks worse than usual, it’s very likely that your eye has improved. You are able to assess your figures more critically and see your weaknesses more clearly. This very likely does not feel like positive progress! But it can be, if you use your improved eye to try to identify specific weaknesses in your work and then put together a plan of action for ways to possibly address them.

Conversely, if you go through a period where you think everything you paint looks pretty fantastic, it’s possible that your abilities to manipulate brush and paint have improved, but your critical eye is lagging a little behind.

Portraits combo2I was pretty unhappy with the drawing on the left. I do feel like I should know better at this stage of practice and training. But rather than beat myself up about it, I decided to just try again and push myself to do better. It is definitely pretty mortifying to be sharing something I consider a failure publicly, but it if helps other people learn or be kinder to themselves, then it is well worth a little public embarassment.

So if I know how to draw a decent portrait, how did I end up drawing a bad one like the above? Unconscious mastery and the importance of the eye are two of the pieces of that puzzle. The poor portrait was drawn at an art store demo. I knew I had limited time with the materials and was eager to try them out. I am still learning to draw, and getting proper proportions and correct shapes as well as placing the features of the face in the right places takes a lot of concentration and effort for me. In other words, I need to consciously put my eye (observation skills) into artist mode and check and recheck my work. With the poor portrait, I rushed through the steps of forcing my eye to do its job to get to the fun hands-on stuff of doing the shading and colouring in the drawing.

The better version of this same face was drawn with the opposite focus. I spent about the same amount of time overall, but a lot more of the time was spent on the basic drawing and checking proportions and placements. So it’s not rendered to the same degree, but it’s overall a much better drawing. But even the poor portrait isn’t cause to beat myself up as a total failure. I was a lot more comfortable with the tools and doing the shading and rendering than I was the first few times I did those things. I was a lot less phased by the limited colour selection of the tools offered in the demo than I would have been years ago before learning general colour theory. (In the event that anyone is curious, the pencil portrait up at the top is more finely rendered, and probably took 2-3 times as long to do as each of the colour portraits.)

The Big Picture

When assessing your progress, try not to focus on a single event or metric. And try to make note of improvements in your process and comfort level, rather than looking only to external markers like positive feedback or contest results. There are going to be moments when you try something new and don’t succeed as well as you’d like, or even at all. There are even going to be moments where you backslide on things you thought you mastered. Those are just individual points on a graph. If your overall graph line is moving upwards, you’re still making progress!

Have you had any moments where you heard a ding! and you felt like you’d leveled up? Or moments when you stepped back and realized that you were getting better in ways you hadn’t thought about before? I hope you’ll share your experiences in the comments, I’d love to hear!