by John Alberts and Jeff Junker
from the collection of Lloyd Passafume
Today’s military uniforms have computer-generated camouflage patterns designed to effectively meld its wearer with the background terrain, thus concealing the soldier from enemy eyes. Only recently had concealment dictated martial costume.
Centuries ago, members of the warrior class used to dress in colorful garb: feathers indicating valor in past battles, fancy embroidery showing allegiance to one’s faith, the cut of the cloth expressing ones political alignment. This fashion marked the Middle Ages. It was a time of harsh conditions; it was a time of hand-to-hand combat; it was a Knight’s Life.
This polychromatic panorama of the “ancients” is shown in the work of John Alberts. With some fancy brush work, he performs his own brand of alchemy breathing life into pieces of resin and metal. Knight Life is a look at how six figures were transformed into works of art.
Alberts starts all of his figure projects the same way. He completely assembles the models prior to painting. Gaps are filled with epoxy putty or green stuff. After sanding the rough areas, he attaches the figure to a wooden block in order to obtain a better grip on the figure for detailing and painting. He then uses two-part epoxy putty, tin foil, and paper to make additional belts, straps, or other uniform-type conversions. Rough groundwork is added to strengthen the attachment between the figure and painting block.
“With assembly and mounting complete, I brush on Floquil primer. I let this dry for days, even weeks,” says Alberts. ” When drying is complete, any touch ups such as additional sanding or repairing equipment straps are performed at this stage.”
Once the figure is assembled, roughing in the base colors begins, using at least three coats of Humbrol enamel on the flesh areas and on the uniform parts. “I am very careful at this point to be precise in the application of the paint. I want sharp clean lines of demarcation between colors,” he continues.
The face is the first area to be finished and it is done in oils. Uniforms are next, followed by leather work, equipment, and weapons. Small details are done last. Then he’ll finish up by doing the groundwork.
Knights of Christ
When viewing one of Alberts’ figures, your eye is immediately drawn to the face: he captures the raw emotion of his subject. In the Knight’s of Christ duet the face of the Templar Knight shows the look of triumph while the anguished expression of his opponent portrays a gasping attempt at taking that final breath.
“Making a face come to life is in the details. Simply, make the eyes look at something and make the lips express something,” he says.
He does this in any number of ways. Placing eyeballs at the corners of the eye socket -either hard left or hard right – as though the figure was looking at something. Opening the mouth gives the impression of yelling. Manipulation of high highlight and deep shadow can give the face expression such as emphasizing one side of the mouth for smiling. You can add wrinkles around eyes for peering.
“Another nice touch is five-o’clock shadow,” he suggests “Gently add raw umber or a blue during glazing to areas of the face a real man would typically shave. The process is hit or miss!”
Both of the warrior-monks are wearing armor and were painted identically except for the base coat. The chainmail was coated with Humbrol silver, while the lamellar armor of the fallen knight used Humbrol gun metal.
After this initial coat was applied and left to dry for a week, the armor was washed with sepia oil paint. Next Humbrol gun metal was dry brushed on, followed by a wash of burnt umber in selected areas to replicate rust.
The final step entailed the placement of silver printers ink on highlighted areas of the drapery. Gold printers ink was used on the lamellar armor. Printer’s ink, which has the consistency of soggy soap is mixed with a Humbrol carrier. (i.e., gold printer’s ink was mixed with Humbrol #16 Sovereign Gold).
Not all knights wore metal armor; some wore thick cotton. This worked fine as long as the opposition had spears, but did not protect well against superior technology, such the arquebus. The Aztec Jaguar Knights’ cotton armor was accented by colorful arrays of feathers. These different colored feathers and costumes showed which village they originated, what status they held, all the while making it easier for their commanders to follow how a battle was progressing.
One of the first Europeans to encounter the Aztec was Bernal Diaz del Castillo. In a diary he kept of his adventures with Cortez, he described the following battle:
“We had not marched half a quarter of a league before we began to see the fieldscrowded with warriors with great feather crests and distinguishing devices, and to hear the blare of horns and trumpets. All the plain was swarming with warriors and we stood four hundred men in number, and of those many sick and wounded. And we knew for certain that this time our foe came with the determination to leave none of us alive excepting those who would be sacrificed to their idols. How they began to charge on us! What a hail of stones sped from their slings! As for their bowmen, the javelins lay like corn on the threshing floor; all of them barbed and fire-hardened, which would pierce any armour and would reach the vitals where there is no protection; the men with swords and shields and other arms larger than swords, such as broadswords and lances, how they pressed on us and with what valour and what mighty shouts and yells they charged upon us.”
September 15, 1519
The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico
Verlinden’s Aztec Warrior is shown in battle dress with a feather shield and photo-etched head gear.
He’s swinging a macuahultal, a carved club edged with obsidian blades. His flesh has a sun-bronzed copper look to it, obtained by using a mixture of oil colors based on yellow ochre.
For high highlights – such as the tip of the nose, top of the ears, eyelids, cheekbone and top of the chin – titanium white was added to the yellow ochre base. Deep shadow – for areas where little light hits surfaces such as under the eyelids, nostril, and under the lips – olive with some burnt umber and yellow ochre was used.
The mid-tones are combinations of these. Alberts then glazed the face with a golden ochre. (A glaze is a thin layer of oil paint applied over a surface, best performed with a transparent color.)
The realistic look to the fur was achieved by using yellow ochre, golden yellow ochre and raw umber. The spots were painted on with burnt umber.
He says the “the trick was to paint the spots on the ‘wet’ (not yet dried) ochres. That way the edges could be blurred. I wanted to soften the contrast to achieve a sheen. The spots should flow with the rest of the fur.”
But the most impressive part of the figure is the helmet. The original ones were carved from wood and decorated.
On Alberts incarnation of the helmet, the eye’s pop out and actually stare at you; they look real. The pupils are floating in a sea of gold.
Earl of Warwick
The Earl of Warwick’s armor was done a bit differently than the Knights of Christ: it is the only figure shown here on which an airbrush was used.
Masking off any area not to be sprayed, he airbrushed the Earl with Testor Model Masters Iron. He then polished and sealed it, following with a wash using Gunze Sangyo “Smoke.”
“The gold ‘rivets’ on the armor were hand painted with gold printers ink. I had to be real careful so that none of the paint bled onto the armor; it took a while,” he says.
The surcoat on top of the armor has a gold sash and gold crosses. The filigree stands out from the background. The sash was first colored with Humbrol Brown Bess. Next, Humbrol gold was applied to the entire area. “Make sure to try and get a smooth finish–metallic paint tends to flake and this must be avoided,” he adds.
He then washed the area with thinned raw umber oil paint bringing out the highlights with gold printers ink.
“With this step, I wanted to introduce the richness of fabric with unadulterated gold as well as to make the crosses and filigree stand out,” he explains.
“There was certainly no difference in the clothing of the various commanders, and the pictorially traditional lacey splendour of the Cavalier as opposed to the Puritan severity of the Roundhead commander has no basis in historical fact. On both sides, officers could be distinguished simply by the ornate nature of their dress, having no particular badge of rank to mark them out. The cavalry generally wore buff coats of thick leather with their armour over them, although some ill-equipped men had to make do with their buff coats alone.” . . .Cromwell by Antonia Fraser
Although the Cavalier’s armor looks different from the other figures, it was painted the same way only using different colors. Humbrol Gunmetal was used as the base, followed with a wash of black oil paint. Silver printers ink provided the highlights.
The buttons were also done with silver printers ink. “I have discovered that to achieve the look and feel of a metallic finish Humbrol carriers mixed with printers ink yield the smoothest finishes. Other ‘carriers’ leave a rougher finish.”
Another technique to successfully bring out a metallic color’s brilliance is using an undercoat of black or gray. Never try covering a metallic area over a white base. Alberts points out that smooth, realistic finishes are best achieved by carefully applying the paint: You should not rush when covering with metallics.
“The Celt was meant to look cold and hard. Life had to be tough back then,” observes Alberts. He used a base color of burnt sienna. High highlight was flesh and titanium white; deep shadow was flesh and burnt umber.
The ‘cold’ look was accomplished by using a neutral tint glaze – a purple. This made the flesh colder as well as gave it a dirty, grimy look.
The hair and beard were colored with Humbrol Desert Yellow. The pants were washed with raw umber. Highlights were picked out with Naples yellow oil paint followed by titanium white.
“I visualize faces as angular. In this case, the face was well sculpted so the brow appears to be furrowed. I tried to work the highlights and shadows to form a triangle. The brow was highlighted and shaded according the outlines of that triangle.” This step – creating an angle – allows you to tie the rest of the face together and avoid the “chalk” look.
The shield on this figure (as well as any parts that concealed sections of the body) was removed after assembly to allow for painting. In this case, the fit was excellent so the joint did not require putty or filling. (The shield had been test fitted earlier). It was then highlighted, shaded, and epoxied back on to the figure.
The water on the base was epoxy glue poured over the painted base.
“Sparta sent messengers through the Peloponnese and to her allies outside. The instructions were to prepare the troops and the supplies necessary for a foreign campaign. The object of which was to be the invasion of Attica. These orders were carried out, and, at the appointed time, they assembled at the isthmus . . . Taking up their positions, they set about the devastation of the country.” The Peloponnesian War by Thucydides
The Spartan’s helmet was coated in Humbrol bronze only after it had been colored with Humbrol Brown Bess. Then a wash of raw umber oil paint was brushed on. Highlights were picked out with Humbrol bronze. High highlights, such as the edge of the helm, were brought out with Humbrol gold.
“I think the idea or effect of having eyes appear amidst a deep shadow suited my painting. I like strong contrast which requires strong shadows and highlights. The peering eyes catch the light just right! The rest was luck!” he says.
The base is scratchbuilt. The marble slabs were sculpted from putty; the columns come from a bakery supply store. The columns were first attached to the wet putty then layers of putty were built up around the column and shaped.
A close look at any of his bases show the figures on a slightly higher level than the base.
The raised portion is the block he uses to mount the figure for painting. This allows the work to be handled without ever touching the figure. The joint between the figure and the painting block is covered in epoxy putty. When the painting is complete, the block is glued to the display base and the rest of the ground work is built up and painted.
The oil paint names used in the text are a bit different than the names used by Humbrol and Testors. Not surprisingly, though, because most of their line is targeted for armor and aircraft models. The following is a conversion guide (provided by artist Joyce Kelly) to put a more familiar face to the oil paints mentioned.
Ochre – ranges from a yellow-yellow-orange to red
Yellow Ochre – Medium-light, yellow, yellow-orange of medium intensity
Burnt Umber – Dark reddish orange of low intensity
Golden Yellow Ochre – see Yellow Ochre, but a bit more orange
Raw Sienna – Medium-dark, yellow-orange, medium intensity
- Raw Umber – Dark yellow-orange, low intensity
Burnt Sienna- Dark reddish-orange, medium intensity
Burnt Umber, Sepia, Raw Umber, and Burnt Sienna are also forms of brown
Photos by Jeff Junker and Phil Novak