Time Machine: Painting Miniatures in Two Dimensions

Michael O. Varhola

Following is a piece on figure painting from the Summer 1995 Military Miniature Art and Review Quarterly magazine by contributor Lee Chandler titled "Beginner's Page."  I found this article especially interesting because the author devotes it to the subject of flats, a type of figure popular in the 19th century, particularly in Germany. It was while growing up in Germany, in fact, that my family visited a museum dedicated to elaborate dioramas featuring painted flats.

Ever since I started painting figures I have been intrigued by the "strange" breed of artists who painted flat figures. I made a point of viewing any flats exhibited at shows and would often drool at those exquisite jewels. I have been a member of the British Flat Figure Society for a couple of years. Their excellent quarterly journal has maintained my interest. As a regular visitor to Euro Militaire I have seen the work of some of the world's great flat artists, Mike Taylor, Trevor Morgan, and Jim Woodley. My favorite flat is Greg DiFranco's Napoleon in his coronation robes -- just fantastic! For seven years I promised myself that one day I would attempt painting one. 

I kept my promise when my pal John Cheeseman brought home the 80mm Kovar figure of "Kara Mustapha" from last year's Sevres. Mike Taylor has immortalized this figure by his extraordinary rendition, a photo of which now adorns the front cover of his book The Art of the Flat Tin Figure published by Woodrow and Greene. (I highly recommend this book.) When I told Mike that I has selected this figure for my flat "baptismal," he thought I had taken leave of my senses. It is one of the most demanding flat figures to paint. I was unperturbed as I like to go in at the deep end. I love a challenge! 

I did not have any reference except Mike's treatment of the figure. So, I deemed it a safe bet to follow his uniform coloring. The choice of colors was typical of the period, especially the apple green of the gown. I discovered that the subject was an Ottoman General for Sultan Mohammed IV. He had the misfortune of leading the defeat of his army at the siege of Vienna in 1683, for which he was duly executed. When painting a flat you must first decide where your light source is, so that your highlighting and shading acknowledge this across the figure as on a canvas painting. Lighting for Mustapha is from the viewer's left, which was dictated by him facing toward my left. 

I wanted to finish the figure in artist's oils. I undercoat round figures in thinned Humbrol matte colors over sprayed Humbrol matte white. Other artist's paint straight onto a white undercoat, building up layers of oil paint to give color depth. I opted for my trusted method. This was my first attempt and potential problems were best avoided. I brushed on the white undercoat thinly, as I feared spraying might clog the fine detail. 

I applied the oils sparingly in the normal way, taking care to remove the excess thoroughly with a clean dry brush leaving just a thin stain of paint. I prepared two or three shading and highlighting tones for each base color. Each shade and highlight was applied and blended alternately, building up the color toning gradually. Final highlights were concentrated on the light source side of the figure, with the intensity towards the far right. Cloth creases and overlaps were further accentuated with shading. The far left edge, being farthest from the light source, was shaded darkest. When shading and highlighting you must maintain your awareness that your goal is to make the flat appear round. A technique, indispensable in accomplishing a realistic 3-D effect on a two-dimensional figure, is to paint cast shadows. Observe the cast shadows I depicted to the right of the scabbard on the figure. See how it separates it from the figure proper -- getting this right is immediately satisfying and well worth the effort. I added cast shadows after the figure had dried, in darker tones of the base colors onto which the shadows were thrown. 

There are several methods for representing metal on flats. Metal paints and figure burnishing are giving way to the methods used by the great old master canvas painters; yellows, ochres, and whites, etc., for yellow metals; black, blues, browns, and whites, etc., for white metals. Results achieved with these non-metallic colors to successfully emulate metal finishes can be quite startling. I opted for this approach. Fortunately, I did not have extensive metal surfaces on my figure to worry about; e.g., no breast plate or helmet! So, I will practice and experiment on small areas before attempting my first large-scale knight. 

I prefer to frame flat figures. It saves having to paint the reverse, which suits my basic lazy nature! I used a 5" X 7" frame that provided adequate dimensions for my figure. I removed the glass, cut a piece of stiff card to the same size, stuck a sheet of self adhesive black velour over the card, cut a slit through it, placed the whole into the frame, and glued the figure to it. On reflection, a larger border between figure and frame would have been preferable for easier composition for photography. 

This is an insight into painting my first flat. I know that I have a lot to learn, but the bug has bitten! I was pretty encouraged by achieving second place, behind the great Jim Woodley, in the flats competition at this year's BMSS Annuals. This publication will have an interview with Mr. Woodley in a future issue. 

I'm off to Kulmbach in August to stock up on flats and I will report on my findings for the October edition. Keep that promise to yourself. 

Paint that first flat!