(Editorial Note: We all know how life turns us one way and then another. This is no less true for our friend Kjeld Buchholtz. Kjeld wrote a great series titled “A Quick Guide to Flat Collecting” that you can still find on this site. This article takes into considerations ideas on painting flats. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I always enjoy contributions from Kjeld.)
A very personal approach
Having been at many figure shows, I often see a certain kind of “fashion“ getting the new figure (round) and painting it first. Sometimes there’s up to 10 version of the same figure. A lesson can be learned from this though. I take my time to study each one, and see what I like and what I don’t. And I must say that almost all of them have some good details, and certain parts done very well. What strikes me though, is how different each painter sees the same details.
Why do I mention this experience?
It has to do with how we see things—it’s all in our heads. From here on, I would like to explain some of the standards I use when I paint flats. Of course there’s no “right way” to to see things, otherwise many of the old masters wouldn’t have changed our perspective, but there are some basic rules painting flats, that will show the figure, it’s period and atmosphere and character in the best possible way, and make it true to the time it represents.
Cleaning the figure, is the first task. Flats always have some minor flaws, and imperfections that needs to be fixed. Flats have two sides, do consider if the backside is better cast and more interesting (painting challenge wise) Flats also needs to be degreased from things used in the casting process. Dishwashing is one way in lukewarm water. Some soak them in a vinegar bath overnight. Whatever you do, touch the figure as little as possible after this cleaning.
Study the period our chosen figure represents. What dyes, colours and fabrics were most common? Is it a foot figure, or an officer? All your colour choices, should reflect these considerations. An example is the British red, worn by a footman from Napoleonic times, many times shown as a bright red. Well, not so, the right colour is a more dull shade, with a slight orange tinge, also depending on the fabric used.
Whatever medium you use, try to avoid a primer that dries to a surface with a shine. This will effect the colours you put on top of this layer. I use enamel for priming, Humbrol grey, no.1. And now why is that?
Priming with white, has some problems, white reflects all the light back into your eyes, and makes it difficult to see details clearly. Besides this, the grey dries to a dead matt finish, which is perfect base for the oil’s I use for further work.
The next time you look at painted figures, try and notice what you look at first. The overall appearence? Details? Since we were born, we have all been bombarded with visual impressions. No matter what we do, we have through the years, established a luggage of our own personal views on how things look, a personal mindset. This affects the way we paint, a personal favorite flat painter technique, an artist, or just the combination of our favorite colours, a sort of personal visual legacy, that we unconsciosly use, whenever we can. The right thing to do, is challenge these prefabricated opinions through a deeper observation/analysis of things in real life. It may be that your observations confirm your own way of seeing things, which is good.
I’m sure you by now have a favorite medium, acrylic, goauche, or oils, which works for you, and there’s no reason to change what works for you. I use oils because of the finer pigment, making soft transitions possible and blending easier. One thing to think about is the scale effect, because of the small size of flats, one should make colours a bit lighter.
In my eyes a flat should have:
Base colour, shadow, highlights, deep shadows and highest highlight, all these things make a flat appear 3- dimensional. Take a break from a figure, and returning, can make you see things you didn’t the first time.
Try to be bold in your painting, and follow your ideas, flats are cheap, and any mistake can easily be removed, with “paintstripper“. I have tried to write down all my colour mixes, for a each figure, this makes it easier to find the colours, returning to the figure, after a while. There’s nothing so frustrating, looking at a figure, and not remember, which colours were used.
There are many ways to do this. I prefer “simulated armor“ painting with blacks, blue and white. I never really liked using metallic paint for this, they seem a bit “toy soldier like“ to me. Besides this, the old art masters never used metallic, but “simulation“, and they did just great. There are many old masters who have painted armor. Trying to analyze what colours they used, can be very rewarding.
This is the hardest thing to portray correct. The highlights change when it moves just a tiny bit. I’m not the best horse painter myself, but I’m striving to be better. This subject calls for an article on it’s own.
This is the part that finishes your figure(s) off, and should by no means be taken lightly. The quality should match your figure—one word of warning though. Putting a figure with lots of gold in a shiny goldframe, is not recommended The goldframe will overshadow your figure, and draw the attention to the frame, and not the figure, the frame should support the figure and lead the attention to the figure. In my eyes the most perfect way to display a group of figures, is definetly a boxed diorama, with background. It turns the attention to the figures, in a fixed scene, where the sides of the box show where it visually ends. Making these is a true art, and done right, they are hard to compete with. In my eyes the ultimate test.
So is there a secret formula to paint flats?
I’ll let you decide.
I could have written more on these subjects, but there’s always room for other opinions, than the ones I have used. I have deliberatly chosen, not to illustrate this article, because in the end, it’s all in your head, until the figure is painted.
After finishing your figure try to evaluate how well you think you did. We all have an image in our head of how we would like it to be. The finished results rarely match this image. But this is also a lesson to learned for your next project. Remember this is a hobby and should bring us joy, not frustration.