Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Miniature Painting: Tiny Faces, Massive Worlds

Story by | Ryan Yeo, he/him, Staff Editor 

Picture by | Kyle Foo, he/him

Kyle Foo ‘22 holds up a tiny, painted figurine between his fingers. “That’s my thumb for scale,” he says. He sticks out his thumb, which suddenly seems very large in comparison.

Kabuki, a miniature figurine smaller than Kyle's thumb. It is clad in black, red, and gold armour.
Kabuki, the adventuring playwright. Photo: Kyle Foo.

“His name is Kabuki,” Kyle tells me about the character he is holding. “He is a playwright and performer. He is adventuring with a group of adventurers in order to find stories to tell. To live out some of the heroic moments that he writes about.” This character concept was crafted by Kyle himself for a role-playing game called Dungeons and Dragons (D&D). 

But Kabuki is no ordinary action figurine. He is also one of several miniature figurines that Kyle has painted himself. 

As a miniature painter since 2018, Kyle’s love for miniature painting actually began from his other hobby of playing tabletop games. “I started off playing D&D at a bunch of local hobby stores and board game stores,” he recounts. “At these places, you’ll see people painting their miniatures. I just asked someone at the store to help me out and show me the ropes.”

The board game stores that Kyle regularly visits include Sunny Pair’O’Dice at Queenstown, Games@PI at Somerset, and Gamersaurus Rex at Bishan. These stores sell board games, miniatures, and painting equipment. They even have dedicated areas within them for miniature painting.

An empty table in the board game store, Sunny Pair'O'Dice.
Sunny Pair’O’Dice is one of the board game stores that Kyle frequents. Photo: Sunny Pair’O’Dice on Facebook.

Kyle explains that many tabletop game players like to showcase their painted miniatures while playing games. Kyle’s miniatures get their chances in the spotlight through role-playing games, where he plays as a different character. “It’s like how you would have an avatar in a video game,” he explains. “These little painted miniatures are what I use in D&D.” 

Curious and a little in awe, I ask Kyle to take me through the painting process, which he happily agrees to.

“First, you start off with a pure, white plastic figurine,” Kyle begins. These figurines are obtained from board game stores and washed down with dishwashing liquid. 

A plain, white miniature that has not yet been worked on (left), and the same miniature that has been primed black. Photo: Kyle Foo.

“Then you prime them. That’s painting over the entire miniature with a special sort of paint, which helps other paint adhere to it,” he explains, showing me a tiny figurine coated in black. “This one is primed black, but there are other colours of primer too.”

Kyle then demonstrates a technique called “dry brushing”. “It’s tough to see the details on a black miniature,” he explains. “It helps me to plan out where to put light and shadow.”

“What I’m doing is putting [white] paint on the brush, running it along a paper towel until it feels dry, and then swiping it along the miniature repeatedly,” he continues. “This is so the paint gets on all of the raised edges, sort of like how light would hit it.” The result is what looks like a layer of bright light shining on the miniature.

On the left, a picture of a paintbrush that has been dipped in white paint. On the right, a miniature with a fine layer of white paint.
The dry brushing process (left), and the dry brushed miniature. Photo by: Kyle Foo.

Next, Kyle adds a base coat of paint, which comprises the main colours of the miniature. He first paints on the brown colours, followed by red, and finally the metallic colours like gold and silver. For this miniature, the process of painting on all the base coats took almost three hours.

Left: miniature with skin painted on. Middle: the same miniature with red cape and clothes painted on. Right: finally, the same miniature with golden colours painted on.
The miniature, slowly coming to life, as different colours of base coats are added. Photo: Kyle Foo.

As Kyle paints, he rests his elbows on the table and presses his palms together. This position gives him the most stability while he paints the miniature, while also enabling him to hold it at eye level. 

“When I was starting out, that was brand new to me too!” Kyle remarks. “It’s not the most intuitive way to paint, but once you get used to it, it becomes quite useful.”

Kyle resting his elbows on the table, pressing his palms together, and painting his miniature.
Kyle demonstrates the posture he adopts when painting his miniatures. Photo: Ryan Yeo.

He continues: “Another little tip that I’ve learned is that if the miniature’s base is very small and it’s hard to get a grip on it, you can paste it on an empty bottle, and hold the bottle while you paint. Now you have a big surface, and you can turn it or hold it upside down if you want to!”

One of Kyle’s other miniatures, pasted to a plastic bottle. Photo: Kyle Foo.

“And then it’s the fun part,” Kyle grins. It is time to add the finishing touches and bring the miniature to life. For instance, Kyle explains that dry brushing, as described earlier, is one way to add the appearance of light shining on the miniature.

Aside from dry brushing, Kyle describes another method to add little details. “You also have things like washes, which are these sorts of paint that are very liquid,” Kyle says, holding up a bottle of watery fluid and shaking it to demonstrate. “When you put it on a miniature, it will drip down into the little recesses and pockets to make those parts look darker, giving it a shadowy effect.”

Kyle’s army of washes, ready to be deployed. Photo: Kyle Foo.

“I’m using different colours [of washes] for different parts,” he describes. The silver parts of the miniature will be washed with black; the skin, wooden, and golden parts will be washed with brown; and the red cape will be washed with “a liberal amount of violet.”

Kyle tilts the miniature to demonstrate the shadowy parts of the miniature (left). Meanwhile, the miniature’s red cape will receive a “liberal amount of violet” (right). Photo: Kyle Foo.

“Parts in shadow, like the bottom of her knuckles, get more wash,” Kyle continues, tilting the miniature to demonstrate. 

The fully washed miniature. Photo: Kyle Foo.

After the washing is done, the final finishing touches to the miniature involve making parts of the hair lighter, putting fresh gold paint on the raised edges, and dotting the eyes, which Kyle describes as the “hardest part.”

At last, after three afternoons of work, the miniature is complete. It is now time for the photoshoot!

The front and back views of the finished miniature, compared to the artwork of The Sunkeeper from the board game Gloomhaven, whom this miniature is based on. Photo: Kyle Foo and Gloomhaven Fandom Wiki.

Kyle tells me that the whole process of painting a miniature can take anywhere from an afternoon of work to several weeks. “I guess a big part of this is that there’s always more you can work on,” he says. “The more time you spend on it, the more detailed and fine-tuned it will look.”

For now, Kyle can put his equipment away—but not before carefully and thoroughly washing his brushes. “These things get gunked up real easy!” he remarks. “There’s special brush soap that you should be using,” he says, taking great care to emphasise the word “should.” 

“But I’ve made do with using hair conditioner, and it’s surprisingly effective!”

Kyle’s stash of painting equipment, resting after another long afternoon of work. Photo: Kyle Foo.

Learning these steps and clever tricks have come from years of practice for Kyle, as well as from listening to the advice of others in the miniature painting community. “It was very tricky, in the beginning, to paint fine details,” Kyle recalls. “Even now, I still have trouble with things like faces. You need to get a lot of practice and dexterity to do the very fine details.”

“If you ever want to learn how to paint,” Kyle smiles, “get miniatures you find interesting, and just go at it! If you make a mistake, you can paint over it with the base coat and try again.”

One of the first miniatures that Kyle painted in 2018 (left), compared to one of his recently completed ones. Photo: Kyle Foo.

As I marvel at the wealth of experience and mastery on display, Kyle reminds me that he is “still an amateur.” That only makes me feel more amazed.

He continues, telling me about the dizzying heights of the miniature painting community. “A place where I’ve painted is called Kolectiv. They’re not a board game store, but they have a studio in Hillview,” he says. “Their owner is a professional miniature painter who organizes masterclasses, enters international tournaments, and makes display pieces on commission. These guys are the proper pros!”

Some commissioned miniature paintings by Kolectiv Studios. Photo: Kolectiv Studios Singapore on Facebook.

The next step of Kyle’s miniature painting journey, he tells me, involves experimenting with more techniques. “I’ve been playing around with gradients. I think it’s a lot of fun, and I’d like to learn more about the technique that goes into it,” he says. “Other than that, a next step could be learning how to base my miniatures: cutting the miniature off of its plastic base, and rebasing it on to things like slate or stone chips, to give it a different effect.”

“And, I suppose, to just practise again,” he says wisely. “That’s the next step.”

As for me, my next step is to sit back and admire, once again, an unpainted miniature figurine gradually coming to life.

At a glance: the various stages of Kyle’s latest painted miniature: the plain white miniature, priming, dry brushing, adding base coats, washing, and the finishing touches. Photo: Kyle Foo.

To see more pictures of Kabuki as well as Kyle’s other painted miniatures, you can follow @fookyle on Instagram.

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