Modeling for all the wrong reasons
I stopped visiting modeling shows when I was 20. I fell depressed about that whole thing; I didn't click with the French modeling community as I discovered it.
Then last year I found out that one of the two big figure painting shows in France was actually running at some half an hour walking from my home. So I went. Only to leave after a few minutes slightly doubtful about what I could see without really knowing why. Yet I thought that as I was getting a few praise in forums for my diorama work it would be sort of cool if I were about to present something the following year –just in order to see what some other people outside my usual circle of friends would think about my stuff.
Then the year went by, and by the end of November I still have only my unfinished Galilée diorama to present. But then I vaguely knew something didn't click in it, that it needed some extra time so that the shining engine would start working.
This is how I thought of that idea of a child standing over an upturned sunken boat with a shark head painted on it. I got the idea last summer while thinking about something else. Then quite suddenly the diorama popped out in my mind fully done, complete with colors and stuff, like I had order it from Mac Donald's.
I fell a bit stupid about leaving all the other stuff pending while I aimed for gold and set for that short trip which would be ended hopefully at the beginning of the next February month, in time for the championship.
Elco, how lame can you go
As usual I had to find the right boat. Now came the conscience case. If you won't see me dead modeling German World War 2, you wouldn't normally see me modeling English or American. For no other reason than the fact I don't like to model the "good" or the "efficient" ones. Sadly I was about to find out that no other country than USA painted shark heads on their boats at any time in history.
I was left with a short list of types of boat.
Vietnam War's Pibber was out of question as it simply wouldn't have fit with the time of history I am the more at ease with. Fairmiles was a definite no because of the angular and definitely not very good looking lines of the boat. Then I was told of Moby Dick's "Pequod" which wears a sort of white mouth. Now that would have been a great idea, but I needed to paint it red for better color balance, and then I am not one to mess with great literature.
The only boat on my list left was the Elco.
Here I was really not very happy with what I found out. Indeed I always liked the Elco's aggressive lines, and then the round shapes of the first series are really great looking. But Italeri put out the model in 1/35 last year –worse even, after checking the Conway's "Allied Coastal Forces Of WWII: Vosper MTBs and US Elco" book, it appeared that the only series from which at least one boat wore the shark head is the same as the better known PT 109 of Kennedy's fame. So here I was about to do something that looked like one of the best known ships of WW2, something that has been declined in model in every scale, and furthermore I had to set the diorama in the merry Southern seas –all in all the complete opposite of what my dioramas are about. But that was the price to pay so that I could still get a scene that could be reasonably plausible.
Something I set up right since the start was that no way I would buy the Italeri kit nor would I ask anybody to sort of make me a form of the nose of the model, I would do everything by myself as usual. And then I found the special edge I needed.
Crawling for pictures on Google, I found some of one particular boat that is currently being restored somewhere in the States, complete with a nice shark head. Well, I noticed that you could perfectly make out the planking of the boat behind the layers of paint, a possibility that was confirmed when I read about the way the boat was actually being built, with overlapping plywood planks.
You can't see much of it in operation pictures, maybe because they were putting too much layers of paint, or maybe because of the lightning I don't know, but then I thought that as the model I was building would turn out being a wreck, I could certainly insist on those separation lines between the planks to accentuate the weathering and had therefore to model them so that their breaking would appear realistic.
With the help of the aforementioned book's great quality plans, I set up with building that front part of the hull, I would be about to cut it so that the whole would look the most graceful I could find like if it were some sort of leaf sticking out the water.
Of course the part of the hull I would be modeling would have to be hollow, which meant I had to find some way to create that. The most obvious way would have been to create a form in whatever material and then vacuform the hull, but then I would not have my planking. So no doubt about that, I had to model first the form and then lay some "planks" on it.
So I started to draw the intricate lines of the boat using cad software and then reduced the scale of the plans to roughly 95% so that I would respect the extra surface taken by the planking. (Image 1) As I would have to model the keel, I cut an extra 3 mm on all the surfaces that would be holding it red drawings on image 1)
I was urprised at the number of different lines I had to draw as indeed the hull of Elcoes are full of curves and diagonal lines. After getting all those lines I printed them on paper, (image 2) glued them on some 1mm plasticard and cut them out with an X Acto (image3).
I had to take care of the different levels and set up for more "fitting" than "force glue" by incising precisely the plastic as I was foreseeing the moment when I would have to use brute force to fill this shape.
In almost no time I had a perfect plastic base that I had to fill. (image 4)
But then with what to fill it? I first thought of using expansive foam for its lightness but then my previous experiences with the material were not that good, so I set up with using plaster (image 5)
Now the filling part is very straightforward and just requires that you use some good quality plaster (if you prefer, the expensive one sold in art shops sold in cardboard packs of 1kg more than the one you buy in housebuilding werehouse. That's because it holds it shape better and is much easier to model. So I mixed a very heavy paste and basically applied it with a big modeling knife in the holes of the shape whiole holding it in the other hand, after a few seconds the stuff starts to fall, but then you rectify the shape again and again until the stuff starts to dry (10 minutes or so). When it begins to dry, you wet your fingers and smooth the surface. That's it guys, if you want to get a good shape, you have to get your hands really dirty at this stage. When the stuff was throughly dry, I straightened up the shape again using a knife. (image 6)
When it was completely dry, I realized I had been unable to create a really very straight surface at the bottom of the boat where the keel will lie. So I applied a thin plastic sheet the size of the future keel on those not so perfect angles and glued it on the plastic parts. I then proceeded to apply a second coat and then I had my almost perfect form (image 7)
Then what to use to do the planking itself? I first thought of balsa or another kind of flexible wood, but unless I were about to use some techniques I don't master, I would have been unable to hold the shape when I would be about to take the form out.
So I set up once again for Magic Sculp.
I greased a glass surface (ideal for its smoothmess) with kitchen oil and rolled a lump of mastic. I then made the keel while pressing the mastic with a square metal sheet until I got a perfectly triangular shape. Then I waited for the MS to be dry enough to be manipulated without taking the risk of destroying its shape –but still bendable enough so that it would be take the curved shape while I would press it against the plaster form.(image 8 and 9)
I followed the same technique to make the individual planks : a fine layer of Magic Sculp that i flattened between two sheets of greesed glass. Once the MS was dry enough, I took a ruler and cut out some planks that I pressed against the plaster form.(image 12 and 13) Note that a thicker lump was applied at the middle of the shape as it was needed. Of course as the MS was greased, I had no trouble in unmoulding the whole shape –though individual planks tended to fall apart later.
So well, here i had a pretty much dreadful result of course –though I tried with a small metal ruler to get the planking the straightest possible, some of the planks were of various thickness as the pictures show. So I had a hard time sanding the whole, and cutting the excesses with a small saw. (image 14) When I saw I couldn't do any better, I applied huge layers of tamiya filler and sanded the whole so that only bits of planking would appear –and also to guarantee that I would indeed get a perfect shape. (image 15).
Once I was finished, I set up doing the inside of the boat. Once more the help of that excellent Conway book proved very valuable indeed. I found out that beneath the front of Elcoes you would normall find a small warehouse as well as sink and toilets. I am not very fond of toilet humor so I leave to somebody else the care of imagining some toilets hanging from a thread in the wreck. And I choose to model only the general inner structure of the boat knowing that anyway, nobody would notice anything as most of the parts would be hardly above half an inch from the water.
Using various length of evergreen, and helped form the pictures in my book I reproduced the rather intricate inner details. But then I had hard time to glue the plastic on my Magic Sculp planks (especially the V shaped shapes), In the end I just happened to have drown the whole in superglue, later using Tamiya filler as well as extra Magic Sculp to make the joints between overlapping bits of plastic to disappear. All in all a very messy job, but it's funny how the fact that very few will be visible in the end tends to help getting such results. (image 16, Image 17)
The plaster sea
Then I had to take care of the sea straight away. Let's be clear, I would normally end up every building part, every figure sculpting before switching to paint, leaving the sea for the last minute. But then I had an issue with that special bit of sea. Indeed I wanted to create a reasonably agitated sea so that the tip of the waves would sort of echo the triangular shape of the wreck –something that just forbid me to just pour some resin layer and then try to raise it with a tool. No, I needed to mould that sea in the same way I did in a number of former dioramas. But then there was some special problem with jaws, indeed the shape of the hull would leave quite a bit of it under the sea in such a way that at first I couldn't see how I would either retrieve the shape of the boat from the sea, or how I would place it again if I used some kind of dummy. But then I found a way doing that.
First I did the mould itself which was rather easy: (Image 18)
I used some balsa walls of the exact size of the diorama that I backed with some modeling paste for kids. I then greased thoroughly both the boat and all the contact surfaces of the future form.
Then in used plaster again, I poured a thick layer and created the shapes of the waves. Then one particular notice about the way I am sculpting them. I heard once the great Russian painter Aivazovski watched the sea for hours and then got back home to paint it –that never did he brought his painting material near a sea shore. That's it, he just tried to capture the true idea of the sea and then tried to paint it. Aivazovski I ain't but I realized what worked for him worked for me as well. I indeed realized that if I happened to Google for sea pictures and that I kept an eye on both my computer screen and my plaster bits, I produced dreadful results. So my technique is rather simple: I watch some documentary with boats and sea in it, or I Google for sea pictures, then I empty my mind, have a breather and start the sculpting work while trying to think the less possible. I basically just leave my hands to do the job, and believe me when it works that's just an exhilarating feeling . Honestly that's for those moments when during a fraction of second I just have the feeling that I connect with something way beyond me that keep me doing dioramas after all these years. (image 19 and 20)
Anyway I had a rather good looking sea in the end, that's probably why I broke the form in 3 pieces –the only way for me to get my boat back for painting..(image 21)
Anyway, i reglued the 3 pieces, using some plaster to hide the joints, made another frame out of modeling paste and used the rest of silicon I had left from my old Koktebel diorama – arather good surprise was that the silicon was still usable despite it being written on the pot that the stuff is not usable anymore 6 months after opening. There is nothing worth mentioning at that stage, except that I used an old briush and also my cutter as seen on the picture so that I would be sure that the silicon really gets in every part of the mould –especially in the small space where I would end up inserting the hull. (image 22)
Painting in sharky waters
Of course I wiped the grease out of my wreck thoroughly before undercoating it with some White Tamiya primer so that I had a base colour that would be suitable for the teeth.
So I went back to the computer in order to draw and then print the right shark head using the few reference I had at my disposal (mainly that shark headed PT boat under restoration I told about earlier). (Image 23).
I glued some large Tamiya masking tape on a sheet of glass in order to be able to retrieve the mask later without trouble, fixed the sheet of printed paper above, and cut out the teeth with an X-Acto. Yet I had a rather hard time to fix those on the hull despite marking the places with a pen.
I airbrushed rather clumsily the red mouth as a next step –no less because my Aztec is about the poorest airbrush ever, that my compressor doesn't deliver enough air, and the nozzle is mostly broken. Anyway, the use of colour is worth mentioning: indeed if I airbrushed a yellowed red tint on the tip of the keel, I used a slightly darker shade of red below, near the water. I used the same trick for the other painting steps: the reddish underside of the boat is mostly red on the top, and of a much darker brown below, same thing with the green of the upper hull (image 24)
But then of course those were only the undercoats. The real painting came later, with my "paint over water" technique which ensured that I get the exact tint I want. Indeed it's been years I am through with drybrush n' washes and other Verlinden era tricks. I basically paint my models just like I would paint an oil framed painting. I first apply a bit of water with a brush on the right places and then apply more or less diluted acrylic paint at the right places, Sometimes I dilute acrylic paint with Citadel inks to get a shinier result –the trick being that –like with the plaster sea- you have to think the less possible about the way your are painting. I just basically follow my intinct, and am not afraid of spending hours on a few cm². In the end I also realize I can hide quite a lot of small imperfections that would have shine through if I had used some more imprecise ways of weathering like drybrushing for instance.
Finally I added some sort of trail of salt using some undiluted white paint applied with a wet brush, that I more or less blended with the brown of the hull. (image 25)
Back to the water (and sweat)
Since my baby was born 2 years ago, my wife unleashed a pityless war on my dioramas, arguing with very good reasons that the polyester resin I use to make my water in scale would also be my watery grave as toxic fumes pour out the diorama practically forever, even once it is set. So I roomed most of my dioramas in the garden shed and switched to Epoxy resin instead which becomes harmless roughly one week after setting. Two big problems with this resin however, it's almost thrice the price as polyester one, and it also dries after more than 12 hours depending on the ambient heat, which certainly limits the amount of work you can do in a day. Its only true advantage when it comes to model making is that it doesn't shrink as much as polyester resin.
I prepared the oil colours needed for the tinting of the resin. I used mainly green based transparent oils as I wanted something that could make some sort of contrast with the red mouth –brown hull. Of course I set up for a very dark mix between black and green paint to be applied at the place underneath the wreck.
So I applied first a completely transparent thin coat of resin so that I could get a great level of transparency near the hull –the great advantage would be of course that the viewer would be able to make out quite a bit of the hull under the sea. Then I applied a lightly tinted green coat, and then after an anormous drying time; both a strongly green tinted coat and also my mostly black tint for the inside of the boat (image 26)
But now was the moment of truth, and I needed the right timing to be able to succeed. Because however nicely tinted that water was, the boat was still not INSIDE the water. So this is how I did: As my 4 coats of resin were still sticky, the slow drying time of the Epoxy resin allowed the piece of water to be probably sort of ripped. So I put some chemical resistant gloves, quickly unmoulded the sea and ripped it of near the point of the arrow shaped hull–I was lucky as the resin didn't really broke but accepted the strong torsion. I picked my boat and shove it quickly in the opening and closed it straight away, I then put some pinch kind of tool for the resin to glue again on the place of the wound and it basically set up like that.
Once it was done, the next step was to paint a first coat of small waves –so once again I used some slightly tinted acrylic gel and forgot the movements of my had so that I had something looking rather realistic in the end. Then I happened not be really happy about that first coat, but that did'nt matter much as a lot of other coats would be to follow. (image 27)
That's it guys, if you want to be able to do some nice water, you have to create dark areas and highligts in it, just like you would do if you were about to paint a figure. So I tinted some extra resin with a rather darker shade of green and applied it in the hollow areas of on my waves and ripples. When it began to dry, I pushed the resin above so that there would be less transitions between the tints. I also incresed the dark shadows under the hull (image 28).
Then I applied another coat of small riplles done out of acrylic gel and yet another coat of resin until I was satisfied. (image 29)
Then I realized that the place where I ripped the resin in order to insert the boat was still visible, so I tried to hide it by placing some small ripples there. Last but not least, if there were some nice bits of colour and shapes, still lacked some real texture on the waves themselves, this is way I used some Microscale Microclear which is a very heavy varnish that leaves a lot of relief on the resin when you apply it by just touching the surface again and again. (image 30)
Now sculpting and painting that kid was another story. I perfectly know what are my weak points in modelmaking: that's it: sculpting and especially painting figures. I feel sort of annoyed about that and decided that there would be no "jaws" diorama if I were not able to put out a figure that would not be of professional class, no less.
That meant I was ready to do and redo the stuff again and again until I was happy with the result but in the end I didn't have to spend too much time on it. The main point was to create the best bit of harmony and balance I could think of. The boy would be slightly bend on one side just like he uses momentum to be able to still stand on a no doubt uncomfortable ship edge. The feeling the people must get out of the sculpting would be sort of sylthlike, the kid himself would have to be very thin and long limbed just like he just would have to spread invisible wings to get in the air. Then I thought that as long as I would have to situate the diorama in the Pacific, I should better try to sculpt an asian kid, maybe Polynesian (I thought of those wonderful first minutes of Terrence Mallick's "The Thin Red Line") or Philippino. The first steps were exactly the same that you can find on every figure sculpting SBS. Thin and strong wire and a lump of Magic Sculp for the body, then dress the body with yet more Magic Sculp once the first step has dried up. (image 31). At this stage no doubt that the hardest thing to create would be the feet and hand. My way to do that was to first attach a very small lump of Duro to the end of the wires while using the stickyness of the material to be sure the stuff would really be strongly attached, and then adding fingesr the following days. My trick to add fingers is to roll the finest possible lump of Green stuff, cutting some finger sized bits and attaching them on the outside of the palm with an X-Acto blade.
Then when the stuff is sort of dry, I fill the inside of the palms with magic Sculp or Tamiya masic diluted with Acetone.
The feet I made independantly of Duro, and then fixed them with glue the following day while hiding the joints with yet more Magic Sculp. Of course I had to dryfit the figure thoroughly at this point as the boy would be bending forward too much if I didn't lean his feet accurately.
Of course all those efforts would amount to nothing if the head looked like nothing. It was done in 4 different steps. The first day I just rolled a thin magic Sculp knob with a strong flat base so that I could manipulate it later without any trouble. Then the following day I made the outlines of the skull including the eyes sockets. The third day was the real one as I carved out yet more eyes socket, and especially I managed to add just the right amount of MS so that the nose and mouth would be great looking. Finally I added ears and hairs out of Magic Sculp and here I was done with the head.
I finally attached the head to the rest of the body with some wire and here I was done, even though I had quite a bit of sanding and trimming left for days to come until I was totally satisfied with the result
I first tried to paint the kid in acrylics, but I ended painting it like I would do with the hull of my boats, and even though the result was not really convincing, I still presented it to the Lugdunum fair like this. Anyway, one week after clutching my medal, I was back again at it, painting it in oils this time, in a much more precise fashion, and this new version is the one you can see now on the final pictures.
Then some detail that just might appear to be slightly ridiculous, but which is in fact extremely important is the way the boy is fixed on the boat. First I had inserted a small wire in one of his foot and pierced a small hole in the hull where he stands now –no way would I have managed to actually MOVE the diorama without breaking the little guy from his edge if I would just have glue him. Last but not least, when the boy was actually completely painted and fixed at its current position, I sculpted a tiny bit underneath the foot, so that both feet would really look like they are imprinted on the edge instead of just flat feet glued on an edge. When this was done, then I really had my diorama I could be reasonably proud of. (image 35)
The fair : a vast sea of grey
So here I went to the fair with my small dio under the arm. The fun began with the judges scratching their heads trying to find the right category to sort it. I finally made it to "historical –hopes"; no "confirmed" for me then awright. I went to see the other stuff presented and left with that same feeling like a cross between sadness and slight anger without really knowing how to interpret it. Then the following day I met a particularly articulate modeler, the kind of guys who's out every week-end when there's the tail of a modeling fair at 500kms round his home. At one point he showed me a very finely sculpted Ork and looking at this melancholic wrinkled face, I saw the light –or more precisely I couldn't see anything anymore.
I was just in the middle of some sort of grey fog.
No matter how much light you would put on all those figs THEY WOULD ALL LOOK LIKE THEY ARE PAINTED THE SAME WAY, just like everybody followed the same "thou shallt and thou shallt not" gospel, and indeed most of the figs seemed to have been painted with some grey undercoat that shone through everything, be it Napoleonian soldier or Ork. The same heavy eyelids and too much shadows on the faces. I told that to my new friend in a very heated manner and he laughed kindly. He said "I see what you mean and that's the way it is! Want it or not, Diego Ruina wins every show he enters in, then -as he wins- all the other guys paint like Diego Ruina, hence that uniformity you can see in that show. But do you believe it isn't the same thing with Panzers dioramas? Everybody tries to emulate Mig, every panzer diorama looks like its neighbor all the same. And then it's even worse with panzers as almost nobody knows how to use pigments properly".
So that's a lost game alright, but then those figure painters and diorama makers forget the main thing : nothing shines from their stuff, they were all doing the same mistakes: nicely painted shadows on trousers and shirt but absolutely no shadows on the stones or architectural details they were standing near to, pathetic looking bits of ferns done out of hastily cut broom hair or -even worse- photoetch near the handsome figure, figs scattered over too much place in a scenette so that everybody can admire each beautifully painted miniature, but scenes that simply don't click as a whole etc etc.
Sure the hands of those masters were steady but art is certainly wasn't. Sure my poor fig was certainly weakly painted but then I thought it really shone through that sea of grey.
So I went back home the heart very light indeed, thinking that only a few years of practice and a good optivisor were between me and what I think I am worth of.
Back home, after having spend another week to perfect that small diorama, I was pretty happy to see that in the end "jaws" provides good vibrations as never did one of my dioramas got as many appraisal from people outside the modeling world. People seem to think it's a relaxed and positive work while in reality it is not. Finally I made my own interpretations for Jaws, that work echoes my own fears about raising a kid in our world: uncertainty front and behind, nothing above and danger below.
I finally wish to thank everybody from Kitmaker and also Les Colleurs who proved me that some people in the French modeling world were worth shaking their hands to, and basically everyone who watched and commented throughout that experience.