Home Page  -   Contact  -   About  -   Links  -   FAQ  -   Blog

The World of Model Soldiers

Part 11 : Painting Your Own Model Soldiers

To attempt to describe the painting techniques used by the better artists for the improvement of their model soldiers, the application of the paint, the techniques of shading and highlighting, and so on, is as difficult as trying to explain to a person with little knowledge of oil painting what the great artists such as Renoir, Goya, or Constable were doing with their paint and how they applied it and made their canvases live. And to do this without recourse to the actual paintings or at least to very faithful reproductions of them, would be an impossibility. With regard to model soldiers, it is simple enough to describe the processes of paint application so that a person with sufficient interest and a steady hand, plus a fair amount of patience, should be able to produce a figure that will be finished to his satisfaction, will be admired by his family and friends, and will perhaps take its place on the mantelpiece to provide him with pleasure for many years. All this is fairly straightforward. It is another thing to explain genius. Given a large enough ceiling, I am sure most of us could apply paint. We could even apply paint of many colours in a reasonable pattern. This is basically what Michelangelo did, but to say that he was a ceiling painter falls very short of appreciation of the man's talent.

There are many reasons for the application of paint to figures. It may be done merely to preserve the metal by preventing oxidation, or perhaps just to make them a pretty colour so that they will attract small children - the brighter they are, the faster they will sell. Painting can be done to a reasonable standard by teams of painters who paint according to a given pattern. They do not know what they are painting, they do not know the details of the regimental uniform, they just know that this soldier has a red jacket and blue trousers and that the 150 over there must be similarly attired.

Model soldiers that are painted, as opposed to the high-gloss toy soldiers, are also painted on a batch or mass-production basis but they are done to a higher standard. The standard of workmanship offered by the model-soldier firms is occasionally criticized, but it should be remembered that these figures are painted down to a price and not up to a standard. If a professional painter spends much more than an hour painting a figure, the price is going to be so prohibitive that very few collectors will be able to afford to buy the model. It is an entirely different matter for an amateur enthusiast to buy a casting and then work on it three or four hours a night, seven days a week. He can put in tens or, in some cases, hundreds of hours in order to perfect his painting techniques. No professional can compete on these lines as he must always paint to a price, except on the rarest, finest, and hence the most expensive figures that are out of the range of the majority of people. The gifted amateur, because he is not charging for his time, can usually produce a better figure than a paid artist.

Until perhaps 15 or 20 years ago, to paint a model or a toy soldier in anything but gloss paint would have been regarded as extremely irregular. Shading was unheard of, colours were applied flat, and it was thought that the God-given light and the moulding of the figure should be sufficient to produce the shading of the cloth. Then tearaway people, with no respect for tradition, began to paint in shading, and it was suddenly realized, with perhaps a certain amount of embarrassment, and in many cases with very bad grace, that these new, jumped-up members of the fraternity, were in fact producing something that was, for those days, superb. And artistic standards continued to improve as new methods of shading, undercoating, and paint application were tried; different colours were mixed, and different types of medium were used, oil-based, water-based, spirit-based paint, or, in many cases, artists' oils taking two or three weeks to dry.

Many or the world's leading model-figure painters are familiar to readers of military magazines and model-soldier journals and books. These artists are well known for their success in competitions and for the seemingly inexhaustible patience and skill with which they transform lumps of lead into flesh-and-blood representations of the human form.

Joe Carry is one of these gifted painters but his work has never adorned the glossy pages of a magazine, nor has he won any prizes. He does not go in for competitions and he is not particularly interested in showing his work to anybody. He produces small figures that need to be examined through a magnifying glass in order to appreciate his skill and their beauty, the features, colouring and shading being as near perfection as one can hope with a model figure.

Two painters who have already won world acclaim for their artistry are Shep Paine and Mlle Josiane Desfontaines. Both can command a high price for their work and examples of it are to be found in some of the more expensive collections throughout the world. Their talents have often been acclaimed in print, in books, magazines, and society journals.

One of the best-known names in British circles for high-quality work on model soldiers is Max Longhurst, who gives demonstrations of his skill with the brushes at the Welling Model Shop in south-east London. Painting and modelling displays are often given at the British Model Soldier Society meetings at Caxton Hall in London, where talented and experienced artists attempt to pass on their knowledge to newcomers.

The model soldier collector who wants to paint his own figures starts with the bare casting, either made by him or bought from the hobby or soldier shop, or by mail order. First the figure should be cleaned using a small knife and perhaps a tiny rat-tailed file, obtainable at hobby shops and hardware stores. All the flash, which is the little web of lead or white metal often found between the joints of the figure, and caused by the hot metal escaping from between the surfaces of the mould when the figure was originally cast, must be removed. Then, file away the parting line on the figure. This is the tiny hairline which shows where the mould halves were joined together. Occasionally there will be small indentations in the figure where the metal has not flowed correctly into the mould, or there may be speckling on the surface, a slightly stippled effect caused by the metal being too hot for the mould. All these flaws must be removed, and where necessary, holes filled in, using a proprietary filler suitable for the metal used.

If desired, the figure can be animated at this stage, that is repositioned into a stance that it was not cast in, and one that is repositioned into a stance that it was not cast in, and one that is more keeping with the style of figure envisioned by the new owner. If the figure is made of reasonably soft metal, it may be animated simply by bending the arms or legs into the new position required. The only problem is that often joints such as elbows and knees take on a semi-circular or rounded appearance and the figure looks as if it has not in fact got joints but that the legs and arms are made of a form of tubing. To overcome this difficulty, cut small V sections in the area that is going to be bent, while still retaining enough metal in the casting to form a hinge. The joints can then quite simply be bent into a new position and any gaps that appear can be filled with filler.

Rub the surface down again and clean off any surplus metal. The casting is now almost ready to be painted. First, however, it must be washed thoroughly in hot water and detergent. This should not have any effect on the casting, nor on any filler, glue, or solder that may have been used to stick the finished figure together. The washing is done to remove all traces of grease, dirt, and oil from the casting, which have accumulated since the figure was first cast in a fairly dirty and talcum-covered mould, since when it has been handled by the dirty fingers of the caster, the sorter, and the packer. It has then been fingered by the retailer, one or two prospective customers, and yourself. If paint is applied to a surface contaminated with dirt it will start to lift off the figure at a later date.

When the figure has dried thoroughly, apply an undercoat. This should be a light-coloured oil-based paint, well thinned with white spirit or turpentine substitute. Apply a very thin coat all over the figure making sure that it is completely covered, and leaving no gaps through with air or damp could get in to cause oxidation. The undercoat should be applied very thinly, so that none of the details of the figure are obscured. If necessary, the figure can be burnished after the undercoat has been put on to make sure that the finished surface is as smooth and clean as is humanly possible. Remember to handle the figure only by its base, or else you will have to start the process all over again.