Grave Guardian - The Base [Part 2]

This is the second part of the article where CK Tang shares the steps of creating a diorama base.

1. Concept

First off I think it’s important to note that a base does not make a figure but it can ruin a very well painted one. An example would be a base that does not fit the figure conceptually, physically of even historically or draws too much attention away from the figure. Having said that I’m still pretty much learning what works and what doesn’t so I’m certainly no expert. However, for me having a figure without a base just doesn’t seem finished.

In this article, Rackham’s mini from the Wolfen of Yllia series, the Grave Guardian forms the centerpiece. I actually know very little about Minis and even less about the various factions and characters of the rich universe in the Rackham’s Confrontation family of minis but based on what was written about the Grave Guardian card that accompanied the kit they were just that.

So several thoughts came about in my old and overly imaginative blockhead but a central theme remained. I wanted a base that conveyed a desolate, barren landscape not unlike a graveyard or a tomb. At the same time it had to have some simple structures that were easy to do but helped to convey the theme as well.

Thus I went with a base that would have no or little vegetation, preferably dried and dead ones if at all. The ground would have to appear dry and eroded and in a pale, lifeless color which incidentally would not overpower the darker shades used on the figure. As for structures I hoped an odd, old skull impaled on a spear and some simple and worn-out “No Entry” signboards written in some intelligible gibberish would suffice.

2. Materials

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  • The Base was a cross section of a branch (Photo # 1)
  • Plaster/White cement (Lower left of Photo # 2, Photo # 3)
  • Sifted Soil (Top of Photo # 2, Photo # 4)
  • Fine sand (Lower right of Photo # 2, Photo # 5)
  • Medium & Coarse Sand (Photo # 6)
  • Watercolors: Grey & Medium Brown (Central Photo # 2)
  • Spatula (Photo # 2)
  • Mixing bowl (Photo # 2)
  • 2-part epoxy putty
  • Styrene rods
  • 0.1 mm Balsa wood strips

Any other base would have sufficed but since I have a whole bunch of cross-section of branches hoarded in my ever increasing junk pile I decided to use it instead. At any rate being a branch it had a more natural feel to it although a piece of grayish marble would be even better, as it would be in line with the graveyard concept and the overall cold feel.

Plaster was the media of choice. I work a lot with plaster and it has a good 1 hour or so working time. It takes cheapo watercolors well and if mixed correctly it is durable although not as portable as it can get heavy for larger bases. The plaster used here is a slightly stronger variety than the regular stuff you buy in boxes such as the brand Polyfilla. The one used here was obtained from a local hardware store and known locally as white cement. The use is still the same though as its used to patch cracks and such. Either way as long as not too much water is added and sand is added the mix, neither material should not crack.

Soil comes in a myriad of colors and textures and is quite fascinating material to work with. What can I say I like playing with dirt. I’ve chosen a grayish, light brown soil and sifted it to get a generally fine texture. Using a regular baking or tea strainer should give you a fairly uniform texture although I wouldn’t use the same strainer for tea later unless you enjoy an earthy taste to your tea. I have also found out that in general the wife, girlfriends and such don’t fancy the earthy taste in their tea either. For those of you who have access to laboratory soil sifters of different mesh sizes like me you will be amazed the various textures you can get from the same soil, ranging from rock sized particles to fine clay (relative to 1/35th scale).

Sand came off a construction site and is essentially river sand sifted to various sizes. Sand is not only critical for increasing the strength of the plaster but provides texture to the groundwork as well.

The 2-part epoxy putty used here was from cheap putty used for sealing cracks called Bondite. Milliput or some of the more expensive commercial sculpting putty would do as well. I’ve used it for the construction of the skulls, horns and the various odd shapes.

3. Construction

In much larger vignettes and dios a little drawing helps but since this was to be a simple base I worked out most of the details in my head.

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The plaster is first tinted. This is done by adding a bit of watercolor paints (Photo # 7) and water is added, though not too much (Photo # 8) as it may make the plaster too watery. With plaster it’s important to add water in small increments.

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Plaster is added and you can see fine sand at the bottom right hand side in Photo # 9. There is no hard rule as too how much sand but basically sand strengthens the plaster mix and helps reduce cracking. It also adds textures as well which is why the medium and coarse sized sand is added.

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It’s a pretty much continuous affair where a little more plaster is added and then a bit more water and the whole process is repeated. What is aimed for is a consistency of ice-cream (mmm….yummy) as seen in Photo # 10. As mentioned too much water you will have longer working times but the plaster will tend to crack and too little you will have a shorter working time and a mix that is hard to shape.

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Next is to prep your base. Here I’ve added a simple skirt of paper tape to avoid spillage of the plaster onto the base (Photo # 11). I’ve inserted some wire rods stuck into holes with superglue. The rods allow a better grip of the plaster onto the wood base. At this juncture some rough fitting and positioning of the figure is advisable on the base (Photo # 12). I’ve made a slight mistake here in that I should have placed the figure more towards the center as its oversized weapons tended to jut out, plus I’ve allowed for a wee bit too much dead space where the spear and signboards would be as you will see later.

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Plaster or “ice-cream” is added in small batches. As the base was small an actual ice-cream stick helped in shaping the plaster (Photo # 13). A rough landscape is shaped and you can make out a slight hump on the top right (Photo # 14). For any higher elevations its best to build the height up with Styrofoam underneath as plaster is heavy.

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Plaster depending on the amount of water added should have about an hour’s working time. About 40 minutes or so when it starts to harden slightly, soil and medium-coarse sand is sprinkled over it and pressed in lightly (Photo # 15). Once the plaster completely dries there should be enough strength to hold the soil/sand in place as long as you don’t plan to run it over with a radio-control 4-wheel drive. At this point, it’s possible to place in the figure and the various other structures you plan to insert into the groundwork. Of course, you can also place all these later and just make allowances for them by making holes (i.e. for the feet) where you intend to place them. The reason for the latter is plaster does become rather hard for drilling once completely dry. I decided to opt for the former, and since the figure came with a horizontal stub joining both feet I ‘sunk’ the figure in along with the various signboards and spear (Photo # 16).

At this point you may want to add any ground texture such as erosion channels, footprints, etc before the plaster dries. As a sidenote, in nature coarse material such as stones tend to collect at the base of slopes and erosion channels so varying the texture of the ground accordingly helps to add more realism (Photos # 31 & 33).

4. Extras

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To keep it simple I’ve decided to do 2 signboards using styrene rods, a bit of balsa wood and some fuse wire. The horns, skull and the sphere-like thingies were made of 2 part epoxy putty. I have no idea what the sphere-like thingies were but it seem appropriate with the horns. The spear point came out of my spare part box. Strips of paper tape were added to one of the horns and to the spear point. Once set the lot was primed (Photos # 17 & 18).

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The lot was treated to the usual weathering. The old wood for the signs was simulated using a basecoat of Vallejo German WWII Beige Cam (821) and Brown Sand (876) and washed down with an oil wash of Burnt Umber. The lower portions of the signboards received a heavier wash to give a more 3-D effect. A little white was then added to the basecoat and dry brushed over the upper portions including the upper portions of the poles (Photo # 19).

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The signboards received the customary nail holes, shredded edges and some faded unintelligible gibberish for words. Actually it means “Stay of the Grass or Run the Risk of Being Beheaded” in old Wolfen tongue (Photos # 20 & 21). That explains why a skull is displayed (Photo # 22) which by the way had a light wash of Black Green (980) for a moldy-fungus look.

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Lastly, the few strips of paper tape were added so that I could give the allusion of a wind-swept landscape (Photo # 23).

5. Finishes

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Once left to dry overnight, the plaster will together with the overlying soil turn slightly lighter in color then when it was wet. At this point it is optional as to how far you want to push the ground contrasts. As you can see from Photo # 24 & 25, some of the soil color is visible above the underlying tinted plaster.

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However, I’ve opted to go further. I’ve used a turpentine wash of 3 oils colors of Yellow Ochre, Medium Brown and Burnt Umber. I didn’t want to make the groundwork too dark or too brown which would overshadow the predominantly brown figure (Photo # 26). The focus is mainly at the bottom of the slope of the small mound, erosion channels and underneath rocks around the upper layer of the soil. I started with Yellow Ochre and for the darkest recesses graded to Burnt Umber. The entire surface was not covered as I wanted to leave the mound largely pale for contrasts and I wanted the soil’s original color to show through in places (Photos # 27 & 28). In an actual cross-section of real soil the boundary between soil layers is actually uneven and thus there is gradation of color and an uneven boundary between the colors which is what I tried to simulate in Photo # 28.

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 For the highlights, I dry brushed using straight from the tube a mix White of Medium Brown. More white was added with for the final highlights which you can make out to the right of Photo # 29. As with any drybrushing, a relatively firm, wide, flat brush was used. Photo # 30 shows the 1st highlight in with the 2nd just beginning at the very top of the ridge.

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More highlights consisting of almost pure white is added gradually to the very tops of the sharp edges especially on the ridge (Photos # 31).

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Another wash usually with the darkest shadow is required to restore any recesses and shallow areas brushed over by the highlights. Placement of this last wash is restricted to only the darkest areas as too much and the earlier work will be muted. The last wash of dark shadows will enhance the highlights even more for white or any bright color always appears brighter when put next to black or a dark color (Photos # 32, 33 & 34).

Conclusion

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With that the base is done (Photo # 35).

This article was generally intended for beginners as I hoped to show how simple it was to make a base. I reckon from plastering to painting including the construction of the various signboards minus the time for the plaster to dry probably took me slightly under 3 man-hours at the most. I do hope some of the approaches here are useful even though all the materials used here may not be easily attainable for some.