Friday, 13 July 2012

The Saga of the Paint-effect Elves

This is the saga of an idea I have been pursuing for about 14 years now. It serves as a demonstration of just how obsessive I can be about this stupid hobby. It spans decades and constitutes hours and hours and hours of my time. Time I could have spent with my loved ones in the sun, or making exquisite love to my wife on a beach. Was it worth it? You decide...

I used to collect 40K miniatures (back in 3rd edition) with no real intention of ever playing; just collecting for collecting sake. I wondered about what colour scheme I would use to paint eldar and dark eldar. I figured it'd be cool to somehow represent their armour as wraithbone, or some crazy alien material. So I had the idea of mother of pearl.

I got as far as buying a pot of special paint and that was that. It went no further, but I did collect a small force of dark eldar.

If the good elves had a lovely alien paint effect, then their evil counterparts should too, right? So I thought it'd be cool to make them look like their armour was iridescent, like the carapace of a beetle.

I assumed this was impossible to achieve other than by painting a number of different inks over silver paint. It didn't really work. Project shelved.

Then in 2000 I started playing warhammer fantasy and the dark elves called to me, asking to be collected and painted. Once again I thought about creating the effect of a weird kind of dark mithryl.
At about the same time I started seeing cars with custom paint jobs that were two-tone. The colour changed depending on the angle at which it was viewed, and some had a kind of black/purple/green effect like a beetle's back (yay!). The effect was simultaneously eye-popping and mind-bending, and immediately I knew I wanted to try it on some dark elves.

In 2000 this looked like magic

My research took me to every custom paint manufacturer and supplier in Europe and the US. For a start, this stuff was expensive. Hundreds of pounds for a litre. And secondly it was for car body sprayers, sold as formulas of mixing powders added to base paints. It just didn't exist in aerosol form off the shelf. By now it had become a quest, and I was actually beginning to consider forking out the coinage to get the paint.

Oh wait! It did exist! After about a year I saw some guy in the US had painted a Tau devifish in two-tone purple and gold (it looked rubbish) and he said he'd bought the paint in an aerosol can. Hours of research later and I find that Dupont didn't make it any more, there were no suppliers in the UK, and customs forbid shipping aerosols from the US to the UK anyway. Scuppered again.

duplicolor mirage
Diplocolor mirage. Hard to get hold of.

While the quest continued I couldn't help thinking that if the dark elves did ever get their fancy paint job, their snooty high elf cousins should do too. So I looked into alternative paint-effects for them. Afterall, their armour is mithryl too, only of the shiny kind.

I thought that maybe if the bad guys are black turned up to 11, then maybe they should be silver turned to 11. That is to say, chrome. Paint effects claiming to make chrome were all rubbish, so I began researching how to get figures chrome plated. Metal figures have been chrome plated from time to time (and even gold plated) by the odd crazy hobbyist with access to electrodes and a bunch of chemicals, but plastic figures were un-platable.

Or were they? Afterall, there's plenty of chrome plastic stuff out there. I researched the process and it involves chemically treating it, powder-coating it and then electroplating it. It's all done in factories on a large scale. I researched small electroplating companies but no dice.

Then I found a guy in the US who makes model custom cars - those guys use all sorts of chrome parts. He plates his own stuff, all set up on little 8" x 6" sprues, and he does the service for other model car enthusiasts. So all I would have to do is arrange some high elf figures onto a sprue of that size, send it to the US and he would chrome plate it. Yay! One problem: relatively inexpensive for the odd sprue; eye-wateringly expensive for a whole army. Scuppered.

About a year later I was in a motor parts shop when I saw a set of colour swatches pinned on the wall by their customised paint mixing service. Bugger me if they weren't colour-changing. And one was in purple and green - the exact colour I'd seen on the car years before. I immediately got a tin made for me (for about £15) and tried it at home. I couldn't believe it. IT WORKED. And I was really pleased with the results.

colour flip dark elves
My colour-changing dark elves. They're purple. No, wait! They're green. 

You see, the search had lasted so long that technology (or maybe the market) had changed over the years. What was impossible or unprofitable to sell on a small scale had over an evolutionary timescale become affordable and widely available (which, incidentally, is why every chav in a fiesta has a fancy flip paintjob nowadays).

I felt king of the hobby. Using the paint was incredibly difficult but I'm jolly proud of the final effect and they get tons of comments from people who see them. Admittedly it doesn't quite get the effect I had imagined - you don't get to see an individual model's armour shifting from purple to green with the contours of the model, but rather the whole model appears either purple or green. Not quite what I had in mind, but awesome on an army scale. And on models that include large, curved surface areas you do get that magical effect that wowed me when I first saw it driving down the street.

The other downside is that as a metallic spray paint, there's no shading or overpainting to be done. This is a one-trick paint effect and the impact comes solely from the colour-changing properties. As specimens of my painting skills go, these models are no more impressive than models sprayed with gloss paint by some kid in his garage. They won't be winning any awards any time soon.

I should mention a ridiculous coda to this quest. It happened when I'd been using the paint for a while and decided I wanted to expand the army. Uh-oh. I'm all out of paint. A year or two had gone by, and when I wet back to the shop the swatches were no longer there. When I asked, they said they no longer made it. I couldn't believe my stupidity. Why didn't I buy three tins in the first place?!

I had to get back to internet researching and finally found a UK model shop selling out-of-production Dupont spray cans (the ones the Tau guy had used years previously). They had two in stock (probably the last two in existence) and they came bundled with a base coat and top coat, making them very pricey. When I used them, thankfully they were the same colour but the consistency was very different and I had to give each model about 6 coats of the stuff, which glooped into crevices and started to obscure detail. The cans would never last more than a few models and the results were getting poor. The project looked like it had hit the skids.

About a year later I was in the car parts shop again and noticed a glass vial sitting on a shelf behind the paint mixing desk. I couldn't believe what I saw - it was filled with concentrated flip-paint colour in the exact colour I'd originally bought. This was the magic stuff they used to create the paint, so I inquired and what would you know, they never ceased making it in the first place. They'd just taken down the swatches because people weren't buying it anymore, and the nice gentleman who had told me they no longer sold it had been talking out of his colon. I bought two tins straight away (though I'm wishing I'd bought ten).

And what of the high elves? Well after years of thinking the chrome elves would ever happen, I did a search the other day (just in case) and found a paint (sold only in germany) that gives incredibly impressive chrome results. If this bizarre german transexual demo is to be believed, it looks amazing. I might just have to buy a tin and experiment.

Now, how many tins of the stuff should I buy?

So there you have it. 14 years and counting. Mozart had written most of his life's output in that time. Alexander the Great had conquered most of the world. I have managed to paint four units of crossbowmen and a unit of spearmen.

Someone please save me from myself.

War is ugly. WAR is not.

About four years out of date this, but if you’re ever after inspirational warhammer stuff, don’t bother looking for pictures of miniatures. Look to Warhammer Online - Age of Reckoning.

Take a look at WAR and you have a totally immersive experience. It’s a world rich with detail and atmosphere. The landscapes are themed (a city, the chaos wastes, etc) and everything within them reflect that, from the lighting to the architecture to the shrubbery. You can see magic happening, not in some abstract way but in front of your eyes like fireworks. The colouring is beautiful and naturalistic, and the character and monster design rich with character.

Now take a look at a typical tabletop game. Unless you’re looking in the pages of White Dwarf or you’re playing a demo game set up at a convention, every single game of warhammer is played by two different players; two different modellers and painters, each with their own skill level and making their own (often terrible) artistic choices. It doesn’t matter how fantastic one guy’s army looks - he could find himself playing a half-painted tzeentch army (the worst offenders for lurid, garish colour-schemes) or one that isn't painted at all.

A screenshot of Warhammer Online
A typical tabletop game of warhammer
Not so atmospheric

Consider a gamer's typical table and collection of scenery. Not only is it usually ugly and badly made, but there’s never any unifying theme to it: a chaos temple will quite happily sit yards away from a pretty half-timbered farm house. “How’s the crop, Hans?” “Not great, dear, the turnips have sprouted tentacles and are demanding blood for their gods.”

The reason WAR gets it right is because it is art directed. There’s a team of designers and an artistic director of some sort making sure everything fits with the overall look and feel of the game. Everything is unified and designed together as a whole project.

I bet anything that those designers and concept artists didn’t have their heads cluttered by decades of Games Workshop studio decisions. Ask most gamers what colour a Tzeentch army should be and you’ll either hear “bright blue/pink/yellow/red” or (worse) “ALL the colours!” Because that’s the way GW has portrayed their models over the years. Even the GW studio army looks all wrong - they get hairy, smelly, thick-set, Conan-style Uber-vikings called Chaos Warriors and then they tell you in the background info that Tzeentch is all about magic and strategy and cunning and deceit. Right, so that doesn’t really fit with the iron-clad uber-norse image does it, so how do they get round that? By giving them a blue paint job. Urgh.

A warrior of Tzeentch from Warhammer Online
A painted model of a chaos warrior of Tzeentch
Not quite as awesome

And what’s Tzeentch’s symbol? The bird. But since his colours are blue and yellow we get all sorts of weird and wonderful parrots on show. Ugly ugly ugly. WAR took the background info and redesigned from scratch. A bird you say? Well, let’s make that a crow. Creepy. Chaos culty. Cool. See GW? THAT’s how it’s done. The colours are muted. And evil. With crazy magic glowy bits. They make just about every tabletop Tzeentch army ever created look like baubles on a christmas tree.

You could say that about every game of tabletop warhammer ever played too - it just never looks as good as WAR. For a start there are dice, rulebooks, tape measures, tubes of Pringles and general clutter, and that’s before we even begin to critique the scenery, battlefield or miniatures.

Now after that massive rant, I shall just turn everything I’ve just said on its head. I don’t play WAR. Never have done. Don’t play computer games, in fact. That’s because for me you can’t beat the real, tangible experience of moving toy soldiers around in their own real-life miniature model world.

What I’m lamenting here is the lack of art direction by the average gamer. No where on the internet can I see fantasy gamers who have taken the same global approach to getting the look and feel of the game right as WAR have taken. Where are the beautifully themed tables and armies? Where are the subtle and beautiful colour palettes extending through tabletop to miniatures? Where are the ambitious landscapes and atmospheric settings?

I should add here that the single biggest thing GW have done to address the problem of ugly-ass gaming is the introduction of plastic scenery. The pieces they have released have transformed the average game and go a huge way in doing exactly what I’m talking about here. You still get a mansion house precariously built next to a temple of chaos, but individually they look great and combined they do more to portray the look and feel of the warhammer universe than any painted army could do alone.

So well done to GW for making it easier for us (thankfully there are far fewer neat, little, half-timbered town houses littering the Old Worlde these days), but where are all the modellers and gamers who are going to take it all to the same level as WAR?

Special note: Pictures used without permission. Apologies to the owners of the second and fourth pictures!