White Armour on Campaign
By Agustín J. (Augie) Rodríguez, MA
I have been writing articles on how to best reproduce armour (as in knight-in[-not-so!]-shining) in scale since the mid-’80s. Much as the hobby has, my techniques have evolved considerably not only as a result of greater experience and knowledge, but also due to the availability of buffable lacquers as a medium. Thanks to Dave Peschke, Bob Sarnowski, and Dick Pielin, I have been afforded the opportunity to share this latest approach with you.
While medieval and Renaissance arms and armour have been a passion of mine since I first stepped into the Armour Hall of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC at the age of 5, I have been a serious student of arms and armour (pre-1700) for nearly the last 20 years of my life. In that time, I have been fortunate enough to be able to visit a number of the world’s finest repositories and collections of arms and armour (and not a few of the smaller, usually-overlooked collections) for the purpose of studying and examining these treasures and artifacts up close and personal. Since so much of what we do is a matter of interpretation, the techniques I will describe herein allow me to reproduce “white” armour (plate)-particularly under campaign conditions-as I perceive it. In other words, this is but one of the many techniques available to the figure-modeling community to represent steel plate; however, few, if any, of these will allow you to reproduce plate in miniature.
Prior to my adoption of Gunze-Sangyo’s Mr. Metal line of metallic lacquers, my rendition of plate revolved around the use of metallic oils and alkyds. While these mediums allowed me to weather the items in question to my satisfaction, the “base” was invariably flawed: the pigments in metallic oils and alkyds are simply too coarse to effectively represent plate metal. I was then introduced it to these incredible paints by Dan Osier, who pioneered their application to arms & armour in the metro Atlanta area. What I have done is taken it to the next level to suit my style, tastes and perceptions.
Gunze Sangyo’s Mr. Metal lacquers became my medium of choice because they are ultra-finely pigmented; they are resistant to the abuse to which I subject my armour finishes; and they are relatively fast to work with. The range is comprised of 5 white metal colors, 3 yellow metal, and Copper. Save for the Copper, I have found the non-white metal colors to be wholly unsatisfactory for the vast majority of applications, though it will beautifully reproduce slightly weathered Japanese gold lacquer! Of the five white-metal colors, we are only concerned with three: Dark Iron; Stainless Steel; and Chrome Silver.
Deciding on the Condition of the Plate & Preparing the Surface. I am of the school that believes that 80% of the figure is painted before the first brush is picked-up, the first container of paint uncapped. Once you have the figure before you, you must decide who or what you intend it to depict, where, and at what time. The more you know about your subject, the better (i.e., the more realistically) you will be able to paint him or her. This is the phase of the entire process I enjoy the most; and the one that will yield the richest rewards when it comes down to doing what we do. If you can attain a degree of intimacy with your subject; weave a “history” about your figure; if you can achieve a good visualization of the finished work, then you are well on your way.
The first step is preparing the surface of your figure to represent the condition of the plate you will be depicting. Depending on the subject and the actual figure before you, this can be as simple as polishing the surface with #000 steel wool or very fine wet/dry sandpaper. Or it might require some re-finishing on your part. Assuming the sculptor and the manufacturer have held up their end of the bargain, how you, the painter, decide to depict the armour can do more to set the “mood”, time, and place of your warrior than just about anything. Interesting “suggestions” can be introduced by the type and condition of the armour, ranging from a high-grade, “late model” steel harness from a prominent workshop to base-level munition armour or recycled, dated armour, unfinished and still black from the forge and/or stained from years of use and abuse.
You can furthermore depict the incorporation of “replacement pieces” or repaired items in a brighter, untarnished and unstained state, or conversely, unfinished and black from the forge, etc. “Weathering” the armour can for the most part be effected in the course of painting upon a smooth finished surface, but if an older or coarse, unfinished item will play a part in your project, then the surface must be textured accordingly prior to priming. As a final note, remember that metallic paints, particularly ones as finely ground as the Mr. Metal lacquers, will amplify any surface flaws remaining on your casting, so be diligent in the preparation of your “canvas”!
Once the surface, and the rest of your figure, are ready, wash your casting in warm, soapy water to remove any stray particles, dust, skin oils, etc. The figure is then primed with several light, “wet” coats of Floquil Grey applied with an airbrush (this is the only instance I will apply paint to a figure with anything other than a brush). By this means, I avoid most of the graininess or particle accumulation due to turbulence. After it is totally dry, I lightly go over it with a paper towel to dislodge the invariable particle accumulation, with the desired secondary effect of buffing the surface to a super smooth finish. All to-be-white-metal surfaces are then undercoated with Vallejo/Andrea Flat Black. This is my preferred undercoating medium, but Polly-Scale Flat Black or Floquil Flat Black are equally suitable due to the fineness of pigment and hardness upon drying. You may use any color in the grey tonal range: it really doesn’t matter so long as it yields a smooth foundation.
Please note that I recommend strongly that the metallic surfaces be completed first, before proceeding with the rest of the painting-and this includes undercoating! The reasons will become self-evident when you begin to buff out your base lacquer coat.
The Base Coat. As can be correctly assumed from the above, I paint ALL my metallic surfaces regardless of the casting medium. While many achieve pleasing and satisfactory results by polishing, buffing and staining white metal, it still will look like polished and stained white metal alloy. What I strive for is to reproduce the look, “feel” and “depth” of steel plate in miniature.
All plate surfaces are painted with a 50-50 mix of Dark Iron and Stainless Steel: this is your base coat. There is absolutely no need to airbrush, dip, etc. the metallic lacquers! The paint is super-thin, and dries almost instantaneously. The resulting dull, blotchy gunmetal finish is not particularly pretty, nor reassuring, to look at upon initial application, but resist any temptation to overwork the surface. Ideally you should make as few single passes as possible with a fairly large, loaded brush while minimizing the areas of overlap. The goal is to virtually float the paint onto the surface while avoiding runs and pooling of paint.
Work one item or unit of plate at a time. To me this is critical, as it captures the “feel” of the individually forged and finished pieces of a harness. There are subtle variations in the resultant tones due to the variables of pigment concentration, direction of the brush stroke, etc. that will become apparent in the next step. It is barely noticeable, but it IS there, and it will enhance the dimension of depth to the armour on your figure.
Set aside your figure to dry for at the very least 20-30 minutes. I recommend allowing at least an hour (preferably 2-3) of drying time before working the surface, but the painted surface is workable within 5 minutes of application (!!!) at the risk of breaking through to the undercoat and/or primer, even down to the bare figure itself. By allowing at least 30 minutes, you greatly reduce the chance and occurrence of the latter. BUT. . . should it happen, there is no need to panic, as the lacquers are extremely forgiving and flexible, readily accommodating touch-ups and the like.
I must point out that contrary to published reports, there is absolutely no truth to the statement that the lacquer must be buffed out soon after application, lest you be unable to raise a sheen! The longer the lacquer is allowed to set, the harder the surface gets–that is all! In fact the increasing hardness level is a critical aspect of my approach. I will point out, however, that once opened, the working qualities of the lacquer begin to noticeably diminish in fairly short order-do not leave the bottle open any longer than necessary!-to the point where buffing out should be carried out within 10-15 minutes of application. If you are not working from a fresh bottle (or nearly so), or once the carrier gets below the halfway mark of the bottle, I suggest you start buffing out a small area on a less visible portion of the harness with a Q-tip after about 5-7 minutes. If a sheen is not immediately apparent, then proceed with the next step right away.
After letting the surface dry, buff out the lacquer with a paper towel, a paper napkin, a piece of toilet paper, even 0000 steel wool (it IS that tough!). I prefer a somewhat coarser polishing grade-in fact, cheap industrial toilet paper is virtually ideal! Tighter areas can be addressed with a Q-tip or the tip of a cut-down Q-tip acting as a burnisher. Once done, set it aside for 2-3 days. Note that you are in effect polishing out a metal surface at this point. A sheen should become apparent virtually immediately: the type of armour and the finish you are attempting to reproduce will determine how much of a shine to “bring up”. I always take it a bit beyond my target finish, as, while I can always tone it down in the following steps, it is much more difficult to restore or increase the reflectivity once the lacquer has had a few days to cure.
Bringing your Plate to Life. Now comes the fun part! Broadly outline all areas of overlapping plate with Dark Iron. Let this set for about 4 hours or so, and buff it out. You will notice a slight, but discernible difference in the tone of the metal. If you were to do this before the base coat was allowed to harden and set, there would be no appreciable difference. You may repeat this step as often as necessary to achieve the desired results. Shading #1 is now finished. On to highlighting. . .
The inherent reflectivity of a metallic surface affords the modeler an almost unique opportunity to significantly manipulate the light source on a free-standing figure. Thus, it will be time well spent to carefully think and plan the placement and intensity of your highlights.
Taking a mix of 2 parts Stainless Steel to one part Dark Iron, brush on your intermediate highlights and light “bars”. No need to be neat about it, just fairly precise and methodical in your placement. Again wait a few hours, and buff out.
Next take a 1:1 mix of Stainless Steel and Chrome Silver, and using a ‘dry brush’, burnish the highlight areas of the harness and the light ‘traps’ of the light “bars”. This is essentially application and polishing in one step. As a final step, you can augment the super-highlights by burnishing select areas with a cut-down Q-tip or popsicle stick. Let this set up and harden for at least 3-5 days. . .
Please note that depending on the period and the quality of the harness, plate will have a greater or lesser content of what is known today as steel. Modern testing has shown that the outer (exposed) surfaces of quality all-white harnesses was fairly high-grade steel, while the inner surfaces were of a considerably poorer grade. The greater the steel content, the bluer the tinge; but this is not to suggest that it actually appears blue: it merely has a cooler, bluish tinge relative to pieces with lower steel content. This is important to keep in mind when plotting out your weathering strategy, as well as selecting your colors: higher grade steel will primarily require Payne’s Grey; while lower grade steel will primarily use the warmer blacks.
. . . At this point, if you are depicting a new or recently polished harness, you are essentially done save for the outlining of the individual plates using thinned Permalba (preferable) or Ivory Black for the deepest outlines (note that this is a controlled application, not a wash!), fading to your shading color determined by the type of harness you are trying to depict (see above) in the shadowed areas created by overlapping pieces, and super-highlighting with spot applications of silver powders mixed with silver printers ink and/or reburnishing as above. But the theme of this article is plate on campaign, and this is where your preparation and visualization, knowledge, creativity, and imagination will be showcased.
Plate armour takes on a beautiful high polish, but it doesn’t stay that way for long: natural oxidation takes care of most of the shine within a week or so; the rigors of the field takes care of the rest in relatively short order. Thus, unless you are depicting a parade or tournament harness, an overall satiny finish, even on freshly polished armour, would probably be more appropriate. A notable exception, regardless of the condition of the plate, would be where overlapping plates are constantly rubbing against each other: these areas should be super-highlighted using the silver powders and/or burnishing.
Areas of plate that would normally be covered by cloth, etc. would manifest lesser degrees of surface oxidation and would probably retain their fresh-polish sheen due to the constant rubbing of the cloth. Thus, if you are depicting a man-at-arms in plate without, for example, the tabard that would normally be worn, then the cuirass, etc. would show little consequence of exposure. This could contrast nicely with the normally exposed pieces of plate. An extreme example would be a post-battle scene on a muddy battlefield (Agincourt comes immediately to mind): an English knight has stripped off his bloody and muddied heraldic garment to reveal essentially pristine armour. Good visuals, good “story”!
If a leather jerkin or belt/s are rubbing the harness, you will have to weigh the effect of the staining by the leather of the metal surface vs. the burnishing effect of the leather itself. Invariably, I will attempt to hint at this by creating a warm shade in the contact area, rubbing a mix or raw and burnt umber, with black added to taste and as necessary onto the steel (if available, Mussini’s Casslerbraun is an excellent color for this, being a warmish, semi-opaque sepia). Note that all shading and weathering, save for precise outlining, is effected with an essentially dry brush rubbing the pigment into the surface of the metal and lightly feathering it out into the base color areas. Save for actual stains, discolorations, etc., this process requires a sure hand, as all you want to do is mute and tint the natural reflectivity of the polished steel, enhancing the effect of the light, and “toning” the depth of the metallic finish.
Weather, the exposure to same, and age are the primary factors that will come into play when weathering your plate. Thus rust (oxidation) must be factored-in your painting strategy when depicting plate on campaign. Fresh rust blooms are obvious, but these are fairly uncommon on a piece of armour that is actively in use. You might wish to hint at their presence with stressed plate (especially in damaged areas, and any areas that are in proximity with high-sweat and/or low abrasion areas [e.g., armpit areas on back and breasts, gorgets, etc.]); but keep in mind that less is more! Fresh rust blooms are reproduced using burnt sienna, Mars Yellow, Venetian red, and Naples yellow lightly and precisely stippled into the area. For a light, dusty coating of rust, I apply a base of a burnt sienna/burnt umber mix, and while still wet, carefully apply a dusting of suitably colored pastel/s.
Rust actually stains the surface of the metal, and in so doing gives it a degree of protection against further rusting (hence russeted armour; and blued and blackened armour-all are cases of artificially-induced surface oxidation) without appreciably affecting the integrity of the plate. This progression of oxidation and the varying degrees of resultant staining, can be very effectively represented using oils. For mild oxidation, short of the appearance of rust, you can simply darken areas of the armour using Payne’s Grey with a touch of a warmer black or raw umber added. The trick here is in the randomness of the application while still maintaining a surface continuum; the discoloration must appear to be part of the metallic surface, not an added afterthought. This applies to all surface discolorations: the colors must blend into the metallic surface!
To represent areas where rust has been polished away, but leaving the now rust-preventative stain in place, burnt or raw umber, or a mix of the two can be rubbed into the surface as described in the shading process. Note that these areas are not shaded areas: whether in shade or highlight, the affected area will tone the perceived color of the metal. Again, apply to as many places as you deem necessary to create the desired look to your harness while maintaining the continuity of the plate ensemble.
Bringing it all together. If you’re like me, you will find yourself repeatedly going back and forth, fine-tuning your weathering. This is perfectly natural and to be expected. I usually will find myself touching-up the surface, playing off each newly completed garment on the figure, right up to mounting the piece on its display base. And if it’s a full figure, then the weathering process will continue to integrate the figure with ground or mount. However, this is more at surface “debris” rather than any change in the composition of the metal itself, and would be approached as with any figure: with logic and restraint.
The one exception is blood. While fresh blood can be dealt with in a fairly straightforward manner, always keeping in mind that it is fairly translucent, and that since there is nothing for the blood to soak into, it does respond to gravity; dried blood is a different matter. Dried blood will appear almost black, hence choose your colors carefully. Also, blood will etch the surface of the metal over time: hence, heavily bloodied plate will have surface pitting/flaws that could be incorporated in the presentation.
A final consideration with regard to the armour itself is comparative in nature. We have already seen an example of this in burnishing areas where the armour is likely to come in contact with itself (articulating surfaces, etc.). Another example is the path of the visor along its pivoting axis. Regardless of the condition of the helmet, invariably the visor will be knocked askew so that it makes contact with the helmet bowl, leaving a tell-tale arc of shinier metal. Most importantly, if a bladed weapon is exposed, always gauge the relative sheen and “look” of the plate against that of the blade-the blade and/or edge will always be the shiniest, as that is the “business” end of things-and the one with the greatest content of high-grade steel-that always received careful attention.
Some final campaign notes. We have seen how forged steel plate armour possesses unique qualities that will determine its appearance depending on its composition, age, degree of exposure, etc. But to create an ultimately convincing “package”, there are countless areas that can be brought into play. Straps are one of the most important as they are the singlemost likely item to be replaced: carefully introducing new straps, especially if of undyed leather, amongst old, weathered leather or fabric-covered straps will immediately denote a “veteran” harness. Do not forget to pay attention to the rivets: steel rivets will age en suite with the armour unless replaced; brass or copper rivets will turn a blackish green over time; but will be bright and shiny when used to secure replacement straps. As mentioned above, do not hesitate to mix-and-match a harness: helmets would obviously be replaced on a fairly regular basis; but gauntlets, tassets, and individual lames are also likely candidates for replacement and/or field repairs.
I hope the above has been of some interest, and will be useful in helping you depict your man-at-arms on campaign. Remember, there is no specific guideline to what can be done save for common sense, a little imagination, and a certain amount of daring to try something new. Always keep in mind that, save for tournament, parade, and formal occasions, armour was campaign dress, and it was no more likely to be blindingly shiny than it would be necessary to winch a man-at-arms upon his horse.
Agustín J. (Augie) Rodríguez is a professional sculptor and painter of historical miniatures, specializing in the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance, Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica and the Conquest, and 16th c. Feudal Japan. His background is primarily academic, having received a Master’s degree in Early Modern European History (1485-1700), with a minor in Art History from Tulane University (MA,1984). His areas of specialization were the military and diplomatic history of the period, and Renaissance arms and armour, respectively.
His personal areas of interest are the “Hospitallers” (the Knights of St. John/Rhodes/Malta); the second half of the Hundred Years War (with particular emphasis on the events from the Battle of Agincourt through the campaigns of Jeanne La Pucelle); the Turkish Wars (including the naval conflicts); “Sengoku” and Momoyama Japan; the discovery and conquest of the New World; and arms and armour, 1400-1700.
Rodriguez took up the brush in 1977 (oils are his medium of choice), and has been sculpting professionally since 1986. His work can be found in the lines of–amongst others–Ft. Duquesne (USA), Aitna (IT), Elite (SP), and Elisena (IT). Currently, he is devoting most of his time to sculpting and painting “one-off” originals (70-450mm) for discriminating collectors, while developing a 90mm line of “samurai” for Aitna that is to be launched later this year. He is the founder and former Host of the then “MedRen Forum”/”Augie Me Fecit” on-line discussion forum (1997-2003), and is currently at the helm of Warriors of the Sun. He also finds time to moderate the Oils’ Forum on LILLIPUT. Augie resides in the metro Atlanta area in the state of Georgia, USA.