Ask Mike McVey: the answers

Mike McVey, from Studio McVey, has sent along his answers to the questions provided by TGN readers. My thanks to Mike for taking the time to answer these and thanks to all the readers for their questions.

Q: How did you start painting miniatures?
I started painting miniatures back in the early ‘80’s. My brother and I had recently started playing D&D, but didn’t really know you could use miniatures (or that miniatures existed), until we saw them in a games shop in London. I was immediately amazed by them – rows and rows of tiny little men and monsters! I started painting pretty much right after then, and soon realised I liked it a lot more than playing D&D. In those days I was painting with Humbrol enamels – very messy and smelly. It wasn’t long before GW (well actually Citadel in those days), started producing their acrylic range – that’s when I felt like I really started painting.

Q: What made you transition from painting to sculpting?
I was actually pushed into it by the studio manager at GW. I was pretty happily painting miniatures and making dioramas at the time, but discovered I had hit a (fairly low) ceiling with what I could earn. He told me the only way I could expect to earn a higher wage at GW would be to join the sculpting team. I don’t want to make it sound like I went against my will though – it just felt like a big decision at the time. I’d been there for about 10 years painting miniatures, and the thought of starting all over again in a different career was mildly terrifying. I had done a little sculpting by then, but no more than a couple of greens, and nothing that had been pressed. In fact I found my very first green recently (stuffed into a old bits box) – it was a hawk-headed beastman.

Once I started it did feel like quite a natural progression though – I was used to working at that scale, and knew the look and feel of the different ranges comprehensively. After I started sculpting I made the conscious decision to stop painting for a while – I wanted to throw all my efforts behind learning a new skill. I do regret that now, as it was many years before I picked up a paintbrush again (with any serious intent anyway). I did quite a bit of painting while I was at PP, but it was always of the ‘that’s good enough’ variety, but it wasn’t until three years ago that I started really putting some effort into it again. I still don’t think my ‘technical’ skills are as good as they were back at GW.

Q: What one thing are you proudest of from your time at GW?
The legacy I left as a miniature painter. I was in a unique position there – for most of that time it was well before you could just tap into the vast amount of miniature painting information on the internet. Back then, just about the only source of painting information people had access to was White Dwarf magazine, and most of that came from me. It gives me huge amounts of pleasure every time someone emails to tell me they learned to paint from my red ‘Eavy Metal painting guide. I’m fiercely proud of what I achieved as a miniature painter at my time at GW.

Q: What one thing are you proudest of from your time at Privateer Press?
Surviving it and still wanting to work in the miniatures industry?

Q: Do you plan to release unlimited metal copies of your resin miniatures in the future?
No. There is absolutely no chance we will ever do that. They are strictly limited to 750 resin castings, and there will never be metal versions. The whole point of doing them in resin was so they were of the very highest quality. Good resin casts are the closest thing you will ever get to painting the original (unless you actually paint the original…). Why do inferior versions in metal?

Q: In regards to miniature creation, how important do you feel it is to keep the potential painter in mind.
Vital! Miniatures manufacturers sometimes forget the sculpt is not the end product. In my opinion, the end product is the painted miniature on the gaming table, or in a display cabinet. And even the difference between those two ends should influence the way it’s designed. You don’t want to have to paint masses of fine detail on every miniature in a 20 man unit – that just drives you crazy. Equally, if the detail is just so fine and tiny that it becomes difficult and annoying to paint – what’s the point of it being there? These is no point in the sculptor using a magnifying lens to sculpt tiny ‘realistic’ detail, if it’s going to be filled in and obscured with the first application of paint.

This is kind of a pet peeve of mine so sorry if I start to rant. To me there is a definite balance that need to be achieved on a miniature sculpt – the balance between detailed and plain areas. Or the balance between textured and smooth surfaces is another way of putting it. I think a sculpt needs both to be successful in being enjoyable to paint. Finely detailed and beautifully sculpted areas can be picked out – but a lot of the choices have already been made for the painter, so in some ways it can be a largely technical exercise. The open, smooth areas allow the painter to put their own mark on the miniature – and make some of their own artistic decisions. It also allows different sorts of painting on the same miniature.

Q: I often hear complaints that female models tend to be over-exaggerated and sometimes even have “parts” in unreal locations. Kinda the “Barbie” effect. Your studios have a much better track record of having realistic women and it appeals to women who paint. Example: Seraphine Le Roux. Sexy, but real. Why do you think other modellers tend to objectify so much without really making things that are appealing to women gamers?
Well there’s a grand tradition of women in chainmail bikinis in fantasy art that I have never understood. I never really saw any of that side of the industry until later in life, and I grew up with 2000AD and GW as my primary ‘fantasy’ influences, and the imagery was far harder and less clichéd. I’ll probably have people jumping down my throat for saying this – but I think it’s more of an American thing – the artists who painted those pictures certainly seemed to be primarily American. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with it – just that I never grew up with it, so my view on fantasy imagery was quite different.

I guess that’s carried over into what we’re doing at Studio McVey. Remember also, one half of Studio McVey is Ali (in fact it was Ali who drew the concept for Seraphine) – and she had no history at all in fantasy imagery until she met me (poor woman), so she finds all that stuff a complete anathema.

Q: If you were stranded on a desert island and could only bring five miniatures with you to paint for the rest of your life (not sculpted by you) what would they be?
Well they definitely wouldn’t be sculpted by me anyway! Tough question, and there are lots of different ways of looking at it too. Would I just choose my favourite miniatures, or ones I would most like to paint? (they can be different things to me). Would I want to re-paint things I have enjoyed painting in the past? My answers to this would also have been different if you asked last year, or probably next week. If I only get five, maybe I should pick something really massive…

I’m going to answer it by picking my five favourite miniatures.

1 - Well my all time favourite miniature is Ejhin De Vanth (I actually don’t know who sculpted this…). In fact there’s a casting sitting on Ali’s desk that’s she’s promised to paint for me (hint hint). Just amazing in so many different ways – the first miniature I saw which was more of an art piece than a toy soldier. The Rackham studio paint job is just amazing too…

Wait – my mind’s gone blank… What miniatures do I like…?

The rest of these are in no particular order.

2 - Empereur Haghendorf by Jacques-Alexandre Gillois for Illiad. This is the first JAG sculpt I ever saw and at the time it came out, there was nothing like it. He’s done better work since, but I can’t see it without remembering how blown away I was the first time I saw it. Jag’s a genius, simple as that.

3 – The green knight by Michael Perry. Probably the most significant single miniature I have ever painted. It was the first sculpt Michael did after loosing most of his right arm – just typical of a Perry that he would just get on with it and start using his left hand for sculpting. It was an honour to paint that sculpt, and I put a lot into it personally. It’s technically not the best sculpt, but for me it’s pretty important.

4 – Sumothay by Raul Garcia Lotorre. When I first saw this miniature on the internet (painted by Raul), I thought it was an illustration. The face in particular just has a level of ‘realism’ (I’m not even sure if that is the appropriate word) I had never seen on a miniature before. It’s one of those miniatures I definitely plan to paint – but just want to make sure I do it justice. Raul’s work is like JAG’s, effortlessly brilliant.

5 – Last one… Not sure what to pick for this one, there are so many miniatures I love, and which have been important to me at one point or another in my career. For instance, if you’d have asked me in the mid nineties I would have picked the original Teclis at number one – that was the first miniature of it’s kind and has been hugely influential on the way I paint. In fact Jes Goodwin sculpts would have made up quite a few of this list – as would Brian Nelson’s work. Both have a great knack of sculpting miniature that that are a joy to paint. Kev White’s work is also amongst my favourites – he is definitely in the ‘painters figures’ camp. I know if Ali was choosing this list she would pick some of his work. I love the work Jose Roig is doing on the Infinity line – his Cutter is a masterpiece.

Okay here’s my choice – Seraphine le Roux by JAG. I know I’m biased, but it’s one of the best miniatures out there right now (we have better ones coming though!).

Q: Do you have any hints for making yellows coat better?
Depends on the sort of yellow you want. For a general warm yellow I would mix, yellow and a spot of orange – with lots of white, and put that down in a couple of thin layers as a base coat. The white increases the opacity and give you a good base to paint a stronger yellow over. You could either treat that colour as the highlight tone and just shade it down – or completely re-coat with a mid-tone and shade and highlight that.

Q: With the increasing number of game companies becoming large scale commercial entities with a seeming remit towards profit above all else, do you see this as a fertile or difficult time for the smaller games companies and new startups.
Both. It’s easier than ever for small manufacturers to get into the industry - and it’s certainly true that the policies of the bigger companies are driving some people towards smaller miniature ranges. However, the more small manufacturers there are, the more competition there is, and the harder it is for the small companies to make sales. Only time will tell how many ranges survive.

Q: Which visual artists are a source of inspiration to you, both as a sculptor & painter?
Many and varied. I’m sure anyone who works in creative industries will tell you – inspiration comes fro a great deal of different places, film, literature – even everyday life. For artists in our industry I love Paul Bonner’s and Brian Dugan’s work. As for wider artists – I like the work of John Martin a lot and was absolutely astounded the first time I saw his paintings in the Tate - they are absolutely massive. Sculptors – I love Anthony Gormley and Andy Goldsworthy, but I’m not sure how much of either of them informs what I do. The biggest direct influence on what I have done creatively comes from John Blanche – it’s hard to overstate what he has done for the miniatures industry.

Q: Based on your long experience as an insider to the workings of the industry, what do you see as the next big step forward in the evolution of the industry?
I’m not sure there’s going to be a ‘big step forward’ – it’s more of a gradual change. New technologies (3D sculpting and rapid prototyping) are starting to make headway – the technology is just starting to get to a level where it’s a viable alternative. Now it’s just going to be down to the skill of the people using it. There are a few examples of people doing it well, and quite a lot of people doing it badly. It’s no different from traditional sculpting really – it’s just a different media.

The plastics industry will continue to grow – it’s getting cheaper and the results are getting better. It’s also really appealing for companies producing higher quantities of miniatures to get rid of some of the uncertainties of the raw materials market.

More small companies are appearing all the time – I can’t see that stopping any time soon. It’ll just be interesting to see how many the market can support.

Q: Is there any friendly competition between you and the better half on who is the better painter?
No competition at all – we both know perfectly well who’s the better painter!

Q: While you are best known for the creative side of the hobby, do you get much time to play games? If so, which games currently get table time and what attracts you to them?
I never game – not even computer games. I did a little gaming while at GW – and had a large Wood Elf army for a few years, but I never once played 40K. I have always chosen more active hobbies, after sitting perfectly still at a desk for eight hours a day, it’s good to get out in the fresh air and move around a little!

Q: What is the process your studio uses to select minis to produce?
The whole thing is pretty self-indulgent really. We produce miniatures we would want to paint. That’s why the line is so varied and we’ll never tie it to a game – it’s just too restrictive. We figure that if a certain miniature appeals to us, it must appeal to at least a few different people too. Once we have decided on an idea, we try and carry it through to the very best of our ability.

Q: What non paint/brush item is most important to your final painted product?
My Herman Miller Aeron chair. I have back problems (years of cheap crappy chairs and bad posture), and I find it very difficult to sit and paint for more than a few minutes in a different chair. Expensive, but best money I have even spent.

Q: A mountain of unpainted lead and plastic continues to grow in my war room. What one tip, trick, technique or skill do recommend to the average hobby painter to give the most reward for the least effort?
Sell it on Ebay?