Monday, November 3, 2014

Miniature Painting Masters: Todd Swanson

Welcome back to The Miniature Painting Masters Series where we sit down with some of our hobby's most prolific and well known painters. In this installment we talk with painting legend Todd Swanson, a multiple Golden Demon and Slayer Sword winner. I guarantee you that you will recognize the majority of his models, that's how influential he has been.

Todd has been a staple at American Games Days for years now, with his last appearance being in 2012. His style is instantly recognizable and his conversions are inspiring. I had the honor of competing against him at the 2012 Chicago Games Day. We both entered into Warhammer Single Figure and while I came in second, he placed first and took home the Slayer Sword, and rightly so. This installment of the Miniature Painting Masters series is even more of a special treat then normal since Todd has supplied me with a plethora of images to use, many of them behind the scenes and W.I.P. shots. It's not every day you get to see how some of your favorite miniatures were made.

Todd's First Mini

Tyler: How did you first become a member of the miniature wargaming and painting hobby?

Todd: I was an avid comic book collector back in the late 80s. My local Comic book store in Lewiston Maine was Reggie’s Corner. This was an amazing store with a variety of comic book & wargaming products on display. They had a miniature section that I never paid much attention to until one day I just got bored with all the same old comic books and I had $5 burning a hole in my pocket, so I decided to look through the blister packs of lead miniatures. The first miniature I ever purchased was from a company called Heartbreaker. It was a 28mm creature very similar to a Skaven. I thought it was cool to scrape some of the areas away with an x-acto knife as this exposed fresh lead and made that section shinier. I would scrape the straps, armor plates creating contrast in shine on the miniature. Over the next couple of weeks I bought several other characters from the Heartbreaker line and did the same thing. I thought they looked pretty cool and I displayed them in my room. That was pretty much it with miniatures for a while until my best friend Eric C. introduced me to Heroquest. They game was incredibly fun! I had no idea there where games out there for the miniatures beyond D&D. I would love the way the levels would unravel and how cool the board looked with the furniture and tiles. I was definitely more interested in the visual side of gaming and was falling in love with miniatures. The Heroquest miniatures where the first that I ever painted and I completed the entire set. I really didn't have a clue what I was doing at the time and I remember using toothpicks to apply craft paint. I started exploring Reggie’s Corners war gaming bookshelf and discovered White Dwarf Magazine. The only reason I even picked it up was that I recognized the Games Workshop logo from the back of the Heroquest box. The fifth edition of Warhammer was out and the High Elves were being re-released. The rest is history and I have been hooked ever since.

Tyler: Do you play any of the games at all and if so how do you approach painting a display model and painting a gaming model differently?

Todd: I still play Heroquest now and again with friends. I consider it a really simple game now but it is very nostalgic and I enjoy it very much. I am really looking forward the 25th Anniversary edition due out this year from Game Zone Miniatures. For modern games I am really impressed with the latest version of Space Hulk and play that when I get a chance. It’s a great visual game with amazing miniatures and board tiles. I also like how fast it is to set up and play once you have the rules down, which is really important for me since I have very little free time. I haven’t painted a gaming model since I did the Heroquest set. Since then I have only painted miniatures that I like with no larger purpose in mind like building an army. I don’t paint gaming models but I think I might enjoy painting a model fast and not have to worry about a perfect blend.

Todd's first Golden Demon entry

Tyler: How long had you been painting at what you would consider a series level before you won your first award? (Golden Demon or other) and can you take us through a little of your thought process on how you prepared that winning model?

Todd: Well I started painting my Heroquest set 22 years ago. But things changed in a major way for me back in 2004. I had always looked at White Dwarf’s Golden Demon coverage with awe. I never imagined that I would ever be at that level or that I could win. One day something changed and I thought to myself why couldn't that person be me? That year I put my heart and soul into a Vermin Lord conversion which took 150 hours to complete. I gathered up a group of my best friends and we made the trip from Maine to Baltimore for my first Games Day. It was an incredible trip and I will never forget how amazing it was. But the main reason I was there was to enter the Golden Demon and at the end of the day I didn't even get an honorable mention. I was crushed! I remember the ride home and how depressed I was. I didn't let that stop me though and I kept painting and continued to push myself. I went back in 2006 and won the Slayer Sword!

I was in complete shock of course as my goal was only to get a trophy. I still remember holding that sword over my head and looking up at it at the awards ceremony, it was surreal. I couldn't believe the called my name! So, I had been painting seriously for two years before I won my first major award.

Just one member of the Slayer Sword winning unit.

I won the sword that year with a Beastman Warherd that took around 300+ hours to complete. My strategy was to paint every aspect of the models to the best of my ability and it definitely paid off.

Tyler: What is your favorite model or models that you have painted?

Todd: That would be very hard for me to say. I spend so much time planning and researching my projects. They usually take a long time over several month or years and when I look back at the miniatures I have finished I remember the things that were going on in my life at the time. I have incorporated some very personal items into my projects so most of my miniatures a very precious to me on a personal level. But as I enjoy the process of creating miniatures so much I would have to say that my favorite miniature are the ones I am currently working on. I am always pushing myself and enjoy the challenge.

Tyler: Can you name one major change in the painting world that has impacted you the most since you started (basing changing from green flock to an integral part of the mini, more subdued colors, source lighting, etc.)?

Todd: The game changer for me was when I stated buying nice brushes. I remember when I first started using them I couldn't believe how much better and precise I could paint. Currently I am using Da Vinci Maestro kolinsky brushes. The other major change would be the discovery CMON. I have collected & studied pictures from the site for many years. I think one of the skills I gained from this was that I developed an eye for quality miniatures. At the time I was not painting at the level that I wanted but at least I recognized that I wasn't and could keep pushing myself. CMON is also a huge source of inspiration and the forums have really helped to create an amazing community of very kind and talented painters.

Tyler: How do you feel the rise of the internet has affected the way people paint their models or the general direction in which miniature painting has gone?

Todd: I think as a whole the community is getting very talented. There are so many great painters now that I can’t even keep track of them. When I first got into the hobby there where 20 people or so who were amazing. Now there’s 1000+ and it’s because very talented people are sharing their projects and techniques with the world on the internet. I think the future will bring many more talented painters and the community will continue to grow. It is a very exciting time!

Tyler: Which miniature painter(s) inspire you the most?

Todd: I get inspiration from so many painters that I would really be hard to say. Instead I will mention the painters that really got me inspired when I started painting at a competition level back in 2004. Artist like Chris Borer, Ben Bishop, Liliana Troy, Tim Lison, Zach Lanier, Allan Carrasco, Jen Hailey, Jakob Nielson, Jason Richards, Jeff Wilson, Sebastian Archer, Davis Rodriguez, Natalya Melnik, Victor Hardy & Vincent Hudon to name a few. At the time these were the people who were developing a lot of the ground breaking techniques that we see today.

I love that plinth

Tyler: What direction do you think miniature painting is going to go in next in terms of style and techniques?

Todd: For me the area that is currently evolving the fastest is all the super realistic freehand textures. I think in many areas miniature painting has hit a wall but the painters that are experimenting with techniques from other types of art and bringing them to their miniatures will be the ones that continue pushing the hobby along.

Tyler: You have a very distinctive style that you have developed and refined over the years. What drew you to such a bright and bold style when the painting meta seems to be shifting to muted and dark?

Todd: There are so many amazing styles of painting out there and they are all very inspiring. When I paint I just trust my instincts and do what feels good to me. I never try to adhere to a particular style. But I have always been the biggest fan of the 'Eavy Metal style and I guess that influence shows.

Tyler: Games Workshop seems to have decided to make the Golden Demons a UK only event this year. Do you think this shrinks the hobby a bit for painters since it limits the number of people able to attend, either geographically or economically?

Todd: People love to paint and even if Games Workshop didn’t exist that would not change. I do think however that The Golden Demon has been around for a long time and that a lot of us have grown up with it so it has kind of been something to strive for. Now that the US Demons are gone I think that painters will find someplace else to focus their attention on like Crystal Brush or Reaper Con or Gencon. I don't think it will shrink the hobby just redirect some of us to new things.

Tyler: You participated with one of our previous Miniature Painting Masters, Chris Borer, in a White Dwarf painting challenge utilizing the plastic Chaos Terminator Lord. Can you tell us a bit about how that got started and what it was like?

Todd: This was during a period of time that I would consider the golden age for Games Workshop and Golden Demon in the US. At this period there were four Games Days in the US, Baltimore, Chicago, Atlanta & Los Angeles and GW was willing to put on very cool special competitions that would help promote the Golden Demon painting competition. I am sure that other GW staff were involved but John Shaffer and Dave Taylor organized the competition which comprised of each of the four US sword winners competing against each other. We were all mailed a plastic kit and a unique descriptive paragraph about the character you had to create.

The rules were simple, you could only use the parts that came with the kit and your own sculpting conversions, and you had one month to paint it before you mailed your finished worked back to Games Workshop. This was a very exciting, fun and stressful painting competition. I remember waiting impatiently for the package to arrive in the mail. We knew ahead of time what model we would be painting but not the descriptive paragraph which was a major factor. So when the box arrived I had to start brainstorming the composition of the miniature. The stressful part was that it had to be to a high standard and if you had made a mistake you would have time much to fix it.

After you mailed it in GW would photograph your entry and put it up on their website where the public would vote for their favorite. I remember how anxious I was to see what the other sword winners had created. I was actually involved in two of these competitions. The first was with the New Orc Warboss kit in 2007, and the second was the new Chaos Terminator Lord in 2008. It was great to see how incredible varied the results could be from the different artist.

Tyler: Two of your Golden Demon winners are Plague Marines. What draws you to the followers of Nurgle?

Todd: I must admit that my heart belongs to Chaos, but if you look at the miniatures I have painted they have been very diversified. From Orcs to Lictors to Trolls. I really love the Festus mini that I painted but never planned to paint another like it. The Mortio Grulgor miniature started out as a demo mini that I used in the classes I taught for painted weathering technique.

One year games day was fast approaching and I already had that mini half done and I was looking for the path of least resistance to have an entry. When I look at my collection it is actually a regret of mine that I have two Nurgle miniatures as there are many other races that I want to try my hand at. On the bright side I do feel that on my second attempt I improved the painting but mostly the conversion work.

The base as well as many other parts are scratch built. I am very proud of the base!

Tyler: Most people are probably only familiar with Games Workshop models form you, are there any other model ranges you enjoy to paint?

Todd: The only miniatures that I have painted to a competition level are from Games Workshop. I have only really cared about The Golden Demon competition so naturally all the miniatures I have worked on have been geared specifically for that. Now that they have left the US I kind of feel lost and in need of direction. I am a big fan of Reaper Miniatures and think that something from their line will be the next thing I paint.

Tyler: The Crystal Brush awards introduced a $10,000 prize for best overall a few years ago, which is the largest cash prize for any miniature painting competition in the world. How do you think this affects our hobby?

Todd: I have mixed feeling about The Crystal Brush. On the positive side it has really brought a lot of attention to the miniature painting community. The organizers fly people in from around the world to compete in the competition and to me this shows that they are working hard to have the best competition in the world. I am impressed with their efforts. The down side is that the average painter won’t even bother to enter as they know the competition will be insane with slim chances of placing. From what I have heard the number of entries has actually dropped since the first year. I really has become a battle of the best of the best. I also feel that that a lot of the painters are only in it for the money which kind of cheapens it for me. People entering the Golden Demon for example do it for the love of the hobby as there is no prize beyond the trophies. At both of the Crystal brush competitions I have attended I have seen some of the winners give away their trophies because they didn't want to have to make room in their luggage. How many times have you seen someone giving away a Golden Demon after the show?

Tyler: Painting to a competitive level is a very time consuming activity. How do you find time to balance life, work and painting?

Todd: Sadly the answer is that I don’t. As I have gotten older the number of responsibilities that I have has greatly increased. I just don’t have the time that I used to and if I am finishing one mini a year I am doing well. I have seen a trend since I have been in the hobby and it seems like most great painters come and go after about 5 years or so. It seems like the ones that have been around longer have managed to somehow make a career out of it. I look at my list of inspiration artist from the previous question and see that most of them have disappeared from the painting world for now and that is very sad for me. I am guessing that we have similar histories. We paint a lot in our late teens and early 20’s then get married have kids buy a houses ect., then we don’t have the time for competition level miniatures. My hope is someday I will have more time for the hobby as I miss it very much. I was very thrilled last year when David Sopper won the UK Slayer Sword as it showed that painters can get back into the hobby after many years away and get back on top.

Tyler: After winning five Slayer Swords and 13 Demons you probably know better then anyone what it takes to win. What do you think must go into making a winning entry?

Todd: Having won Golden Demon trophies and the Slayer Swords I have come to realize that some of my notions of what makes a winning miniature are correct. There is no guide to follow that states what it takes to win, but I have a strategy that has worked and I am going to share some aspects that I think has helped me to win at the Golden Demon.

Model Choice: Choose miniatures that you absolutely love. If you are passionate about what you are painting you will want to do a better job. Choose miniatures that are superbly sculpted. I have always thought that the painting is limited by the sculpture of a miniature. I have spent hours looking through the Games Workshop website choosing the best models available.

Conversion: I feel that conversion is very important as it makes the miniature unique. It is very important that you do a quality conversion so that the finished model looks like something that Games Workshop would produce. You don’t want your conversion to look like a conversion! When converting a miniature I study it and think “how could this model be improved” and go from there.

Painting: This is a painting competition after all, so this is the most important. Quality is the paramount aspect of painting for me. This means there are absolutely no mistakes anywhere on the miniature. This is very time consuming but is well worth it if you are serious about winning a demon. Quality also entails doing your best to have seamless color transitions when blending. Don’t hesitate to repaint something if it does not turn out as planned. On many occasions I have repainted areas that I spent hours on because it did not come out right. Always look for a place to incorporate freehand design or freehand textures on a miniature. This is where you can really make your miniature stand out and make it unique. Be as creative as you can with freehand and spend some time doing sketches before you apply your idea to the miniature.

Time: Quality work takes time. I spend about 100+ hours on all of my entries.

Tyler: Any final thoughts?

Todd: I you are new to the hobby don’t let all the amazing stuff you see out there discourage you. Just remember that all great artist had to start somewhere and that what you are seeing is probably from the years of them refining their craft and a lot of hard work.

Be sure to check out a selection of his work at Crooked Eye Studio.

The custom base he made for Mortio Grulgor will be sold as a resin cast over on Chris Borer's website, Full Borer Miniatures, in the near future (mid November), so be sure to keep an eye out for that. I will also have a review of it on here when it comes out.

Todd gave me so many pictures for this article I may put together a second post sometime soon that shows off the rest of what he sent me, so keep an eye out for that. There are even more W.I.Ps, which always interest me.

Until next time,

Tyler M.

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