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  • Little Pisky Diorama

    This article does not fall easily into any of the categories.  It’s a little bit of modification and a little bit of scenario building.  Blend together for a little pisky magic.  This isn’t a “How to do it,” it’s a “How I did it”.  I’ll also attempt to record my thought processes, including ideas I rejected.  I hope there may be something here to inspire your own projects.
    Paints used were Vallejo acrylics where I had the right colours or old tubes of various artists’ acrylics when I didn’t.  Undercoat was a car spray undercoat.  Photography was the best I could manage with my Pentax Optio 550 compact.
    I write my own Advanced Dungeons and Dragons campaign, and I wanted our party of adventurers to meet some pixies, or, as they are known in Cornwall, pixys, pisgys or piskys.  The nearest match to what I envisaged was Reaper’s #2445 “Fairies”.  I waited four weeks for an English supplier who said he’d ordered them for me, then cancelled that, and ordered them direct, waiting another two and a half weeks for them to cross the Altantic.  “Patience is a virtue, I must endeavour to cultivate.” (The sentence my mother-in-law had to write out a hundred times for “lines” when she was at school.)

    Here they are at last, and they’ve already had loads of work on them even at this stage.  These are an old sculpt, and Reaper’s moulds are evidently getting a bit knackered.  There was lots of flash to file off, some of it very thick.  Cleaned up and undercoated, it’s time to pause and have a close look, and a think.  Undercoating models often shows up bits of flash that I missed.  So I file the newly observed bits and then touch up the undercoat.  But now I’m reminded of the reason I said these miniatures were “the nearest match” to what I wanted – they aren’t fully right.  It’s the wings that let them down.  The character’s themselves have great style, but the wings are thick slabs and look rather like grave stones.  What’s more the veins are crudely represented by grooves rather than raised ridges.
    I look at some painted examples on CoolMiniOrNot, of both these, and other fairy wings.  None really satisfied me.  I think in terms of drilling holes in them, painting them with rainbow coloured metallics, and so on.  But I’m not satisfied.  I want wings that are delicate so I begin thinking in terms of removing the wings and replacing them with something made of fuse wire and cellophane, or acetate (the film used on old-style overhead projectors).  I spotted this dragonfly while on holiday, and in its wings I saw the effect that my head was demanding:

    Challenging eh?  When in doubt, I leave the problem to one side and work on something else…

    Elsewhere in CoolMiniOrNot articles there’s a chap telling you how to make slate effect bases out of modelling putty.  Like one of the commentators, I was a little bemused – not because it’s a not a good article, it is – but because I hadn’t realised that slate was something which had to be simulated.  Evidently it’s not this easy in other parts of the world, but in Britain, if you can’t pick up slate from the ground source, or from old roofing slates, you can buy it from garden centres or DIY stores that have an outdoor department.  It’s sold as a decorative aggregate – for non-gardeners among you, that means you stick it all over your rockery, around your pond and so on.  You can buy a sack for about a fiver, and that’s less than you’ll pay for a 25mm miniature these days.  One sack would give you enough slate to base an army of thousands!  It even comes in purple, red and green tints of grey, and you can buy big rocks of it, or you can buy mudstone (they market it as “Rustic Stone” or some such silly name) which is part formed slate, and which is really easy to split with a chisel.
    In my adventure the piskys are going to be sitting on a dry stone wall.  I trot outside the front door, to one of the places where I use the slate in my garden – an area beneath my bonsai shelves, where it keeps the ground weed free.  Two minutes on my BTM are spent picking out the smallest flattest bits I can find.


    The idea developing all the time, I decide that the wall is going to need end posts.  As a dry stone wall needs pillars where a gate is inserted, I’m going to need them to contain the length of the wall.  Back into the garden to find some long thick bits.


    Rather than start cutting up hardboard, which would not have nice bevelled edges, I use three 25mm slotta bases, and glue them onto thin card with PVA glue.  It warps up a bit, but I’ll fix that later.  The card I happen to have is black, and I like the bevel round my miniatures to be black, so over painting will be easier.  Serendipity.  I’m still dithering about those wings though.  I’m practicing a bit of blending for a paladin’s cloak on the back of one… yup, it looks like I’ve decided the wings are going to go.


    This view shows just how chunky they are.  Still dithering…


    The gaps in the base are filled with Milliput epoxy putty.  I could have used Green Stuff, but the cheaper alternative is fine for this use.  It’s a rough job, but only the front edge of the bevel needs to be smooth, everything else will be covered later.  The little butterfly wings have been printed off twice, and to an appropriate scale.  They’re cut out carefully and they fit back to back neatly, as thin as two sheets of paper.  They’re the best option I’ve got so far but… they go into the bin.
    I have had my Eureka moment by remembering that I’m making Cornish piskys.  And of course, pisky’s don’t have wings do they?  This is what’s aesthetically wrong with the original sculpt.  The figures look very much like traditional images of Joan the Wad and Jack O’Lantern, especially with those fantastic eyebrows, but the sculptor, or more likely one of his sources, has slapped wings on them in a fairy conversion.
    A digression into Cornish folklore:  There are only two named piskys in recorded legend, Joan the Wad and Jack O’Lantern.   But there is also another story in which two say to each other “Modilla” and “Podilla”.  These words my just be a representation of their language, but I’ll use them as the names for my pisky characters.  And no wings!


    Off with their wings!  (I don’t torture flies for a hobby, honest Doctor.)  I try a needle file, and a gent’s saw (a tiny fine toothed saw favoured by railway modellers for cutting rails to length) but neither are adequate.  In the end it’s the nippers/wire cutters and long nosed pliers, and a fair degree of brute force which chop the slabs away.  And as anyone who’s ever done it will know, cutting Reaper figures from their bases is tricky.  You have to work slowly and carefully, or you pay later.  “Patience is a virtue I must…”


    What does a fairy look like after an encounter with a small nuclear device?  The back ain’t pretty.  And now I notice that the object she’s holding lacks imagination as well.  (Once you chop… you can’t stop!)
    Both figures are bent at this stage away from a standing posture towards a sitting one.  The male figure needs less, as his short jacket sticks out over his bottom, giving a natural seat area.  The female needs more bending with the aid of a wedge snipped from her lower back.  Neither will achieve a fully seated posture, without a really heavy re-sculpt, but that’s OK.  They’ll be perching on the wall like monks on a misericord rather than like me slumped in my armchair, and that fits the concept rather well.


    The back needs a lot of work with a needle file.  But I’m not too worried.  I’m not going to invest too much effort into the back of the model.  I play D&D with two other players, sitting round three sides of a square table against a wall, so nobody’s going to be studying the back in great detail.  I file away the worst of the mess, but the hollows and the high points I can’t bring myself to file, are disguised by giving her more hair.  Some damage to the side is also covered – hair extensions cover a multitude of sins.  Getting trigger happy with the nippers now, so it’s off with the ball-on-a-stick thing.  I drill a hole through the hand with my pin vice, and fabricate a new wand from Green Stuff.  When I was out walking the dog I noticed a wonderful bit of twisted silvery-white ivy stem, and I recalled the magic wand they use in the film Willow.  My bit of Green Stuff with emulates that.  There’s also a repair to the left foot, after a few toes were lost in the nuclear incident.  The undercoat needs a lot of retouching after all the rough handling.


    Meanwhile, it’s on with the dry stone wall.  The best two long pillary bits are selected and, since I won’t be able to bury them, they’re going to need to be cut.  This is cutting across the grain of the slate, so each pillar needs to be carefully marked with a pencil line, and cut with a single strike of the cold chisel and club hammer.  Goggles and gloves on, and into the garden for this one… or, as it’s tipping with rain, wait till She Who Must Be Obeyed is not looking, then quickly do what you have to do on the coconut door mat in the back porch.  (The dog has the same thought sometimes.)  (Think about it.)


    The pillars are set in Milliput.  I was expecting to have to glue them into the Milliput sockets after it had dried, but they were firm enough without.


    Now I start building the wall.  I’m modelling a dry stone wall, but at this scale, the stones will have to be stuck together.  I use PVA glue, which turns out to be less than optimum.  Retrospectively I might have used something more tacky, as the slate pieces glide about too much on the PVA.  It only means however that I have to stop halfway to let the lower three courses set before adding the top three.


    Now there are still too many holes – though actually this photograph is taken from desk level to illustrate the problem.  From eye level you see less of them.  Easy to fix though.


    This is the less important back. Some tiny fragments left over from the cutting, or quickly produced with the nippers are glued into the largest gaps, then Milliput is poked, very generously into every remaining gap.


    Here’s the front, now, in case you were a little alarmed by the back.  The angle of view is between desk level and usual eye level of a seated person.  A little more Milliput is added to the base and crudely roughed up.
    At this stage, the project is interrupted by the annual family holiday.  It’s off to Dumfries and Galloway.  Now the landscape of south western peninsula of Scotland has many similarities with that of England.  There’s dry stone walls everywhere, so I photograph a couple of dozen, to the amusement of the locals and to the befuddlement of one Australian tourist who tries to tell me I’d get a much better view of the bronze age monument from up there…  I thank him politely.

    I’m reminded of the importance in art and modelling to work from good source material.  I’d been about to add moss “for effect” into my dry stone wall, but even though I photograph several with moss, I notice that it’s pretty much either or.  You get mossy dry stone walls under tress sometimes, but the ones with lush grasses and wild flowers are always exposed, sunny and moss free.  I’m also reminded that even when wild flowers are abundant, they comprise a very small part of the colour area  (their affect on the eye is disproportionate) and of the incredibly large range of greens, yellow-greens and blue-greens which make up the total effect.

    This stage may look boring, but believe me, it is very important to get the base colour of the ground correct.  Looking at my source photographs, I see that even in dense ground cover, there are places where you can see between plants into areas which, if they are not the soil, are areas where the shade is so dense, your eye cannot perceive colour in it.  Matching these areas from my photos I paint the base a dark grey.  Visible bits of Milliput between the stones, shining areas of glue and the back are touched up, but I’m careful not to get any on the slate, as I’m never going to be able to paint as well as nature.

    Now it’s out into the garden on a foraging expedition.  The secret is to see small, so it’s reading glasses, and big magnifying glasses on, and out to lurk in the shrubbery.  I’m looking for the extreme tips of any foliage, which are sometimes a miniature resemblance of the whole plant, and things like seed heads, seeds, or seed mechanisms, which often have complex detailed structures.  I come in with a good handful of bits, above are the best.  From left to right:  1) The gone-to-seed head of a helichrysum (straw flower) – I grow these, but you’ll find them as the staple component of almost any bought bunch of dried flowers.  (Buy your wife a bunch, she’ll never notice the bits you’ve scavenged.)  2) The pièce de résistance of my foraging is the dangling seed structure of a stinging nettle.  Bigger the nettle, the better the seed head (and the whoppers in my garden are a testament to too much time spent making models.)  This is very delicate, but if it does not break, when turned the other way up it’s going to be ideal for a foxglove or hollyhock type plant structure.  3) The very purple flower head of some kind of ground clover.  This has the colour intensity to stay fixed even when it’d dried out.  4) The extreme tip of a bracken (fern) frond.  It’s withered and deformed horribly even before I take this photo, so it’s not going to look like a fern as I’d hoped, but it still has texture and compexity.


    On with some flock.  This is Jarvis scenic scatter, as used by railway modellers.  It’s supposed to look, in OO/HO scale like a summer meadow I think, but I desperately wish they’d sell it in pure colours rather than ready mixed – that way I could vary the density to get a more natural effect.  Look at a meadow, you see drifts and patches of colour among the grasses, not an even distribution.  Here I’ve already toned it down, with some very, very dilute brown paint, and some equally dilute straw coloured paint.  Again, this is an observation from my photos.  Usually in painting, we work from a dark foundation and go lighter and lighter.  But my roadside vegetation by late summer has lots of dead straw coloured bits, at the lowest level and nearest the front.


    Fiddly, fiddly, fiddly.  But worth it.  The bits of nettle seed head and fern tips, have to be dipped in very dilute green paint, at least twice.  This isn’t so much to colour them, as to give them strength.  The stem of the nettle seed structure is as fine as a human hair, and probably more delicate.  They are on the smooth surface of blister packs, because I have to turn them regularly as they dry, with a pin, to prevent them sticking.


    Now this is where the helichrysum seed head comes in.  These fibres are probably part of the wind blown seed distribution system, but they make great long grasses.  The trick is to nip them out of the seedhead with tweezers, and stick them down immediately in clumps.  Once the fibres have become separated and point in varying directions, all hope is lost.  In the photo you can see some stray strands lying sideways.  These are picked out later when the clumps have dried.

    More very dilute paint goes on the flock.  The nettle seeds go in, painted with more layers of green and some mauve.  They’re stuck to the base and the wall due to their extreme fragility.


    The long grass looked too dead, so it gets some washes of greens.  Again, very very dilute, to avoid sticking the fibres to each other with the viscosity and adhesive quality of paint.  Pinky-mauve highlights on the flowers, observing from nature that on foxgloves and hollyhocks, the whole spike is never in full flower at the same time.  On with the bits of fern frond tip.  It’s all hanging off at the front because it was rather springy – it had to be stuck into place, allowed to dry, then the rest of it bent back, and stuck as well.  And look carefully near the right pillar, and you’ll see that clover flower.  I’d selected it for it’s great fixed deep purple colour, but in the end, it was the shape which appealed.  It looked like a tiny bush, so it got dipped and painted in various greens.  The part of the fern in the centre has gone day-glow green, but I’ll tone it down later.  I’m assembling and painting or painting and assembling the bits in happy disorder.

    Finally, some Games Workshop static grass.  It’s wonderful stuff, but it’s very important to use it sparingly because again, it comes in just one colour or mixture, and if slopped all over it will look like green shag pile carpet rather than anything in the real outdoors.  And finally, finally, black paint to touch up the bevelled edge.


    Dip the figures in a jar of Cornish Magipaint, and  voilà!  They’re only stuck on with PVA, because I might want to pull them off and use them on some other feature in a later adventure.  They look a little as if they’re hovering above the wall rather than having a rest, but I’m OK with that.


    Adventure now played.  Modilla and Podilla, always speaking in rhyme, arranged a forced marriage for our ex-paladin and the nursemaid of the lady he was escorting.  His donkey acted as best man.  Much laughter was had by all.  Have a care lest you should offend them.
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