Miniature painting: small faces, massive worlds

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History by | Ryan Yeo, he/him, editor

Picture by | Kyle Foo, he/she

Kyle Foo ’22 holds a small 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, the adventure playwright. Photo: Kyle Foo.

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

But Kabuki is no ordinary action figure. He is also one of many miniature figures that Kyle has painted himself.

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

Board game stores Kyle visits regularly include Sunny Pair’O’Dice in Queenstown, [email protected] in Somerset and Gamersaurus Rex in Bishan. These stores sell board games, miniatures, and painting supplies. They even have dedicated areas within them for miniature painting.

An empty table in the Sunny Pair'O'Dice board game store.
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 enjoy showcasing their painted miniatures while playing games. Kyle’s action figures get their chance in the spotlight through role-playing, where he plays a different character. “It’s like having an avatar in a video game,” he explains. “These little painted miniatures are what I use in D&D.”

Curious and a bit impressed, I ask Kyle to walk me through the painting process, which he happily accepts.

“First, you start with a pure white plastic figure,” Kyle begins. These figures are obtained from board game stores and washed with dish soap.

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

“Then you prime them. It’s painting the whole figure with some kind of special paint, which helps other paints adhere to it,” he explains, showing me a small figure covered in black. “This one is primed in black, but there are other primer colors as well.”

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

“What I do is put [white] paint over the brush, run it along a paper towel until dry, then run it along the thumbnail a few times,” he continues. “This is how the paint penetrates all the raised edges, much like light would hit it.” The result is what looks like a layer of bright light shining on the thumbnail.

On the left is an image of a brush that has been dipped in white paint.  On the right, a miniature with a thin layer of white paint.
The drybrushing process (left) and the drybrushed miniature. Photo by: Kyle Foo.

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

Left: miniature with painted skin.  Middle: the same miniature with red cape and painted clothes.  On the right: finally, the same miniature with golden colors painted on it.
The miniature slowly comes to life as different colors of base layers 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 allowing him to hold it at eye level.

“When I started, it was all new to me too!” remarks Kyle. “It’s not the most intuitive way to paint, but once you get used to it, it becomes very useful.”

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

He continues: “Another little trick I learned is that if the base of the figure is very small and hard to grab it, you can stick it on an empty bottle and hold the bottle while you paint. Now you have a large surface and you can turn it over or hold it upside down if you want!

One of Kyle’s other thumbnails, glued to a plastic bottle. Photo: Kyle Foo.

“And then there’s the fun part,” smiles Kyle. It’s time to add the finishing touches and bring the miniature to life. For example, Kyle explains that drybrushing, as previously described, is a way to add the look of light shining onto the thumbnail.

Besides drybrushing, Kyle describes another method for adding small details. “You also have things like washes, which are these kinds of paint that are very runny,” Kyle says, holding up a bottle of watery liquid and shaking it to demonstrate. “When you put it on a miniature, it drips into the little nooks and pockets to make those parts darker, giving it a shadow effect.”

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

“I use different colors [of washes] for different parties,” he describes. The silver parts of the miniature will be washed black; the skin, wooden and golden parts will be washed brown; and the red cape will be washed down with “a generous amount of violet.”

Kyle tilts the thumbnail to show the dark parts of the thumbnail (left). Meanwhile, the figure’s red cape will receive a “generous amount of purple” (right). Photo: Kyle Foo.

“The shadowy parts, like the bottom of his knuckles, are more washed out,” Kyle continues, tilting the thumbnail to demonstrate.

The fully washed miniature. Photo: Kyle Foo.

After the wash is complete, the final touches to the miniature include highlighting parts of the hair, applying cool gold paint to the raised edges, and dotting in the eyes, which Kyle describes as the “hardest part.”

Finally, after three afternoons of work, the miniature is finished. Now it’s time for the photoshoot!

Front and back views of the finished figure, compared to the artwork of The Sunkeeper from the board game Gloomhaven, which this figure 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 that is that there’s always more you can work on,” he says. “The more time you spend on it, the more detailed and refined it will be.”

For now, Kyle can put away his gear, but not before he’s thoroughly and thoroughly washed his brushes. “These things spoil very easily! he remarks. “There is a special brush soap that you should use,” he says, emphasizing the word “should.”

“But I just use conditioner, and it’s surprisingly effective!”

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

Learning these clever steps and tricks is the result of years of practice for Kyle, as well as listening to advice from others in the miniature painting community. “It was very difficult, at first, to paint fine details,” recalls Kyle. “Even now I still have trouble with things like faces. It takes a lot of practice and dexterity to do the finer details.

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

One of the first miniatures Kyle painted in 2018 (left), compared to one of his latest creations. Photo: Kyle Foo.

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

He goes on to tell me about the dizzying heights of the miniature painting community. “A place where I painted is called Kolectiv. It’s not a board game store, but they have a studio in Hillview,” he says. “Their owner is a professional miniature painter who organizes masterclasses, participates in international tournaments and makes exhibition pieces to order. These guys are the real pros!

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

The next step in Kyle’s miniature painting journey, he tells me, is to experiment with more techniques. “I played with gradients. I think it’s a lot of fun and I’d like to know more about the technique associated with it,” he says. “Other than that, a next step might be to learn how to base my miniatures: cut the miniature from its plastic base and rebase it on things like slate or stone shards, to give it a different effect .”

“And, I guess, just to practice again,” he said sagely. “That’s the next step.”

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

In short: the different stages of Kyle’s latest painted miniature: the solid white miniature, priming, drybrushing, adding base coats, washing and finishing. Photo: Kyle Foo.

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

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