Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Next Project - The Great War in Greyscale

Belgian Refugees Fleeing the Front, 1914
Well, I think it's time for a change. Except for a few small diversions I've been concentrating on 28mm Napoleonics for almost two years now and while it's my first love, and I know I'll keep adding to the collection, I need a to follow a new drumbeat for a while.

So with this in mind I've been spending the past few months gathering inspiration; casting my eye around, reading books, watching films and documentaries, and most of all following blogs from other hobbyists. From all this, one period keeps coming back to me time and again - the Great War.
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To me the Great War resonates in several ways. As a Canadian, the Great War is where my country was first recognized as a distinct nation and not merely a colony of Great Britain. Like many of the combatant forces we paid heavily for our participation in the war. Ypres, Vimy Ridge, Passchendaele, the Somme, Amiens, Cambrai - all are names which are frequently inscribed on cenotaphs across Canada - in both large cities and small hamlets, from Newfoundland to British Columbia. Also, in my day-to-day work, I am frequently involved in assisting researchers, creating exhibits and participating in commemorative activities pertaining to the Great War - so there is certainly a professional interest. Finally, on a personal level, I have several family members who served on both sides of the conflict, both on land and sea, and their involvement strikes a deep cord within me.

There are several hobbyists who have done remarkable work within the Great War period but there is one that deserves special mention. Sidney Roundwood's fabulous collection of miniatures and terrain capture both the pathos and the horror of the late war on the Western Front and I think the composition and colour palette of his miniatures are remarkable and exhibit a very distinct and evocative style.


A sample of Sidney Roundwood's excellent WWI collection.
So after some consideration I decided that I wanted to attempt a very stylized approach to the project. I want to test myself and so made up my mind to compose the project entirely in black and white, or more precisely a form of greyscale called 'Chiaroscuro'.

Ok, what is 'chiaroscuro' and why in heaven's name would I want to do this?

Chiaroscuro is an old art term originating from the Renaissance period. In Italian it literally means 'light-dark'. It is a high-contrast effect that is used to define the subject in order to provide drama and weight. Frequently artists will use a single colour to draw attention to specific aspects of the composition. A few contemporary examples of the chiaroscuro effect are the films 'Schindler's List', 'Renaissance' and 'Sin City'.









So, why do this? Well, I've seen similar effects done very well in other projects where the starkness of light and shadow play well to the theme of the subject. Vikotnik's monochrome Nosferatu game and Carmen's  black and white pulp gangsters are great examples. 

With this in mind I thought that since our collective memory of the Great War is largely dominated by black and white imagery it may be interesting to portray its miniature version using a similar greyscale palette.  I also think there is a certain cold, dehumanizing starkness to greyscale that may suit the mood of the Western Front. At the very least it should be an interesting exercise!



So, with the entire colour spectrum being reduced to shades of grey I knew I had to be very systematic with my paint selection. After bit of deliberation and testing I decided to use a tonal range consisting of ten distinct shades, extending from pure white to deep black. 


My 'colour' range for the entire project. Yikes!
Within this range I established four cool grey tones (with a blue base) and four warm tones (using a brown base). This way I can play around with replicating skin, fabrics and metals.

A notebook logging my selected greys from light to dark.
One would think that this would be a relatively simple and straighforward exercise but its actually quite challenging as I have had to find an equivalent grey for each colour tone that I normally would just have a pot of paint for. I soon realized that I needed to keep a notebook keeping track of my 'map' of equivalent greys so I could refer back later to decipher particular mixes.


Beginning to keep track of colour-to-greyscale equivaltents...
Of course, as things would have it, I decided I wanted to embark on this just before our vacation. Not to be deterred, I mocked up a 'hobby travel kit' so I could work on some test figures while we were away. Below is the case I've been using during our travels. It works quite well as the paint bottles fit upright, I have a separate long compartment for my brushes and tools and it allows me to carry around 30 figures in the padded compartments. As you can imagine my wife looks at this, smiles indulgently, all the while thinking that I'm a little 'touched'...



Anyway, I've been beavering away on a selection of 28mm castings from Great War Miniatures. I'm wanting to do some of the encounter battles of early 1914 so I thought I'd do something a little off the beaten path and concentrate on the Belgian and French armies of that period. So below are a few Belgian 'test' models painted in my interpreted greyscale palette.


Test of Concept: Early War Belgian Infantry Skirmishing

My plan is to have all the rank and file in pure greyscale, but the NCOs and officers will have the chiaroscuro effect of a selected defining colour picked out. Finally, the dead will be painted in full colour (or perhaps their wounds) which should provide a dramatic (and hopefully sobering) contrast to the planned monochrome background.




The NCOs and officers will be popped off the steel shims and mounted on hexagonal bases for better identification  - a great idea of Sidney's!
All of these NCOs still need to have muted colour highlights applied, such as red cap bands and collar tabs for these Belgian fellows.




As an example of my interpretation of the chiarascuro effect, the French officer below has his trousers and kepi in a muted red. I'm still debating whether to do the colour in vibrant tones or keep it muted like what is shown here (I used a heavily diluted chestnut ink over grey for this). I'll have to try both to get a better impression.


This was one of my first efforts which I managed to get done at home.



Finally, as a counterpoint, here is a German infantryman in an early war uninform. You can see I've used a 'stone' grey with a brown base to accentuate his tunic.


Again, this was an early model done before we left - the colour background is a little jarring with the greyscale figure.
Here he is in a more monochrome setting.

So there you have it - my new project, well in theory anyway. I imagine the figures will go relatively quickly but the terrain will take more time. It too will be done in greyscale, but I'm thinking of having aspects of it in muted colours (shell holes with green pools of water, red rusted wire, etc.). We'll see how it works out.

Please check back over the coming months to see how I'm progressing. And any comments or ideas are encouraged and, well, encouraging! 


UPDATE:

Its been a few months since I began this project and I thought I'd use the space below to place a few images of how its been moving along. (If you're interested, you can poke around the blog and find more images and descriptions of each of these.)


Belgian Carabiniers with their Dogs and Carts, 1914
Belgian Machine Gun Dog Carts

Belgian 'Minerva' Armoured Car

Early War Germans

Early War French 'Poilu' 

Early War British, 'The Old Contemptibles'

A Sniper amongst the Dead
Taxi de la Marne
Early War Highlanders


British Despatch Rider

80 comments:

  1. This is an amazing idea for a project, and your first models look great. Excited to see what comes next.

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    1. Thanks Sean. I'll finish the Belgians and then get on with the Germans. Then the terrain...

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  2. Wow. Just, wow. this is amazing. I'm incredibly impressed.

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    1. Thanks! Your words of encouragement are much appreciated. (At least these don't require shield transferes, eh?)

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  3. Hmmm. An interesting idea, I am going to hold off my decision on whether I like it just yet!

    Reminds me of some Source Lighting style on GW miniatures- some really nice armies doing that.

    Just not sure overall....

    CP

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    1. Yup, I can understand your doubts completely, Chris. There are times when I look at them stitting on my table and say, 'What the hell am I doing to these perfectly beautiful castings?' Nonetheless, once they are set within a greyscale environment they may look less incongruous. At least that's my hope!

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  4. Boy this is a one 'out of left field' for sure...
    I must confess I am not sold on the concept...
    But in saying that, what you have done so far is excellent work, and clearly has achieved what you are after, I think.

    The only thing I can't get my head round though, is how will you do terrain? Are you going to play on a 'grey cloth' with grey terrain? if not then the figures may look add against a colorful background.

    Whatever you do I will be watching with interest to see how it turns out.

    Also, in terms of gaming I guess you are doing this as a skirmish level game. What rules do you plan to use?
    regards
    Scott

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    1. You Kiwis are hard to please! ;)

      Seriously, thanks for the comment, Scott. As you allude to and I said to Chris above, the clincher will be the terrain. My plan is that it will be in greyscale so it will be sympathetic with the figures. Otherwise, as you say, the models will look somewhat out-of-place in a colour setting.

      The rules will be the Lardies 'Through the Mud and the Blood' which is geared to large-scale skirmish (multi platoon from the scenarios I've seen). I expect I will need around 100 figures per side when all is said and done.

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  5. Those test pieces are looking great! And I really like that French figure with the muted reds; it just seems to "work."

    Somewhere, I have my own little notebook with a table of color/gray equivalents similar to yours :)

    -Carmen

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    1. Thanks Carmen! I really appreciate your comments as your excellent B&W Pulp Gangsters provided a large part of the inspiration to attempt this project. I was especially impressed with your corresponding terrain and opiniions on cool/warm grey tones. I've decided to mix the two in order to see what effects I can achieve. Time will tell.

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    2. I have loved Carmens Graeyscale figs for years. And I immediately thought of his when you posted yours. Here's hoping you meet with success as he did. Love the test paints. I have been thinking about this as well. I will follow with much interest.

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    3. Thanks very much for commenting. Yes, Carmen's B&W Pulp collection is a great inspiration and I hope I can come close to the success he achieved.

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  6. I reckon my great surprise with your idea but I'd like to see the final results before making a judgement. Nonetheless the first painted models you present here are outstanding

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    1. Thanks! I look forward to seeing the final results as well!

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  7. I love this idea, I think your very brave to undertake such a different project like this. I must say I do like the stark look it gives. And the touch of colour on the officer is a great idea. Like Scott said, what are you going to do about terrain though? Is this going to be black and white like the figures or just the normal run of the mill colours?

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    1. Thanks Ray! I feel that in order for the effect to come off the terrain will HAVE to be greyscale as well. Otherwise it just won't work. As it is the figures look rather undead when put next to colour terrain. (Now, there's an idea...)

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  8. What a great idea for a project and I think the finished results will be outstanding if the test pieces are anything to go by. LIke Ray and Scott I am curious as to now you will deal with terrain but I'm sure time will tell.

    Cheers
    Ross

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    1. Thanks for the words of encouragement, Ross. I expect the terrain will be a bit of trial and error to get right.

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  9. I really like it, I think it's harder than your making out, to do this consistantly will be hard but the effects so far really stand out. The idea of grayscale terrain at first I thought NO but it's the best way of bringing the colour of the dead out shockingly. I think it will be striking and really looking forward to seeing more of this

    Ian

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    1. Thanks Ian, for your comments. Yes, it is a bit of a technical/intellectual exercise with such a limited tonal palette to work from. The 'full colour dead' is a relatively new idea I had. I'll have to do some test models to see how it integrates with the rest of the theme.

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  10. Now this is one project that I will certainly be following avidly. You seem to have already identified the possible pitfalls in the limiting of palette. There is something rather other worldly about these monochrome miniatures; it as if they are consigned to history to fight forever. Best of luck.

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    1. Thanks Michael! Yes I agree, when arrayed together they do have a sort of 'spectral' mood about them. This is good as I'm wishing to achieve a more impressionistic/moody feel for the project.

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  11. This looks like an amazing idea, with a poignant reasoning behind it. Really looking forward to seeing it take shape.

    The Nosferatu board is amazing, a very fitting inspiration.

    Phil
    http://infrequentwargamer.blogspot.com/

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    1. Thanks Phil. Yes. I think the pervasive mood of the Great War will suit a monochrome approach. The Nosferatu game is amazing and such great inspiration.

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  12. I love this effect. You are a brave man attempting this. Looking forward to seeing this develop.

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  13. When you told us about this project a couple of weeks ago, I was definitely intrigued. It looks like a lot of hard work, but you seem to be on top of it. These initial figures look very effective and I can't wait to see the finished project.

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    1. Thanks Tamsin. Yes, it will take a bit of work to pull off but the process should be interesting if nothing else.

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  14. You are mad .... but in a good way...
    Excellent idea i think, looking forward to seeing it develop

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    1. Indeed, as a March Hare, my friend. Though it is this type of madness I know you'd appreciate.

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  15. Wow... interesting idea/concept! Terrain is going to be brilliant..

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    1. Thanks Steve! If I can make it halfway to 'brilliant' I'll be delighted.

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  16. Fascinating idea and what a great challenge on the technical execution. A game with those miniatures would be very immersive since that vast majority of the images we have of WWI are Black & White pictures and newsreel footage.

    I applaud your creativity and courage to try something so unique!

    Miles

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    1. Much appreciated, Miles. We'll see how it progresses - cross your fingers.

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  17. I love the idea! The test shots are looking good. I really like the controlled use of colour for officers/NCOs.

    Have you considered using an airbrush? If I did something like this (say, for pulp SF or WWII Pacific theatre) I'd prime black and spray zenithal highlighting in flat white, giving a grayscale figure. Different parts of uniform/kit would then be glazed in the various gray acrylics to differentiate different "colours" or textures.

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    1. Cheers Dave! I'll have to chat to you about the airbrush idea. I've never tried it but would be willing to give it a go if I could get my thick head around it.

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  18. It's an amazing and unique idea Curt, really looking forward to more!

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    1. Cheers Fran! Once I get home I hope to get more stuff in production.

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  19. A very interesting and brave idea, Curt. This project is amazing and very difficult, I think. Looking forward to see it moving.

    And the French Officer is really nice.

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    1. Thanks for your kind words, Juan. Much appreciated!

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  20. A very imaginative project Curt, good luck!

    A friend once did the Seven Samurai and foes in Greyscale, looked good. Personally I'd be tempted to do all the terrain grey as well, I think it'd look better monochrome. Will follow with interest...

    Simon

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    1. Cheers Simon! Woh, yes, the Seven Samuai would look fabulous in greyscale (and much more manageable than this silliness)!

      Yes, my plan is to have purpose built terrain all in greyscale or some form of monochrome. Otherwise the figures will look too out of place in a colour environment.

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  21. Curt, what a tremendous and wonderful idea. It's imaginative, very skilful and is going to be an incredible journey. Having the fallen in full colour would be stunning - an incredibly moving image. What you've done so far is really very special - I can't wait to see what else you come up with!

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    1. Thanks very much, Sidney. Coming from someone who has done such inspiring work in this period I find your words very encouraging. If I can pull off just a portion of your success I will be very pleased indeed!

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  22. This looks amazing; an absolutely cracking plan.

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    1. Cheers A-Historian, much appreciated.

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  23. Very Artistic.

    I believe it would be smart to do the backgrounds in 'grey scale' also in order to get the sort of effect you are after.

    Otherwise the 'dead' will blend into the background and the 'men' will all look like ghosts. Like your early war German in front of the color terrain.

    Be interesting to see some 'in action' tabletop shots...

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    1. Thanks MurdocK. Believe me I want some 'in action shots' more than anyone as it would mean I would have enough done for a game!

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    2. I had a look at the 30's gangsters and street scene pieces. She did all those background parts in grey scale also, what might go well for your project would be a shattered building and / or trench section?

      I will continue to watch here for that scene...

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    3. Absolutely, with my setting being in the early weeks of the war it will most likely be village or rural settings and less trenches (which came later).

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  24. I had to come back and comment again. This is going to be an amazing, standout project when finished. There are a lot of, great, armies and boards out there to game WWI. This one will be totally unique. What you are doing here is as much art, perhaps performance art, as it is wargaming.

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    1. Thanks again for the kudos - its very much appreciated! Not sure about it being 'art' but I hope it at least will be an interesting diversion from doing colour-heavy Napoleonics.

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  25. The idea is amazing and your execution supperb! Looking forward to seeing this progress?

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    1. Cheers Burkhard, thanks very much for the encouragement!

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  26. Curt,

    I know exactly what you're talking about being sucked up into Napoleonics. Don't you think they ever let you escape...

    I'd like to suggest the rather beautiful miniatures from http://forgottenglorious.blogspot.de/ They really do look brilliant.

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    1. Thanks for the tip, Kawe! I had seen these a year or so ago but had totally forgotten about them. I'll have to order a pack or two to see how they work out.

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  27. Great idea. I've seen this style before, and thought it really effective. I may have to give it a go myself. Not sure I'm sold on the red on the officer. I understand the need to make them stand out, but for me, you have to be really selective as to what you color. By choosing to paint the breeches, you make a feature of the breeches, and to me that is a little weird. What about highlighting the jacket, or just the hat?

    Think I'll have to go try this now.

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    1. Thanks very much for your comments Derek. I went with the trousers and kept as they were historically noted for being red. As such I did not choose to color the tunic due to it being a shade of blue which may get 'lost' amongst the grey tones. Nonetheless I'm sure I'll be trying several methods over the coming months.

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  28. I've always had a persistent background interest in the Great War from back when I was 8 or so and saw a documentary about the battle of the Somme. Great War wargaming is is the planning somewhere in the coming years.
    I'm on Warhammer right now and with this article in mind I'm inspired to do Necrons (planned for later this or early next year) in greyscale.

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  29. Thanks for your comments, Erwin. Yes, I think a high contrast greyscale approach would suit the Necrons very well as so much of their bodies are made of some form of metallic materials.

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  30. Wow dude - I was looking forward to painting some guys using regular colours tonight....it will all seem so shallow now....

    Great stuff man - as always.

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  31. Thanks, mon ami! Much appreciated.

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  32. Very nice work Curt and really creative! I agree Sidney is a big inspiration btw!

    Christopher

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    1. Thanks Christopher! Yes, Sidney's work is brilliant and a great inspiration.

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  33. That looks fantastic... well done Curt. Fabulous idea well executed. Those deserve a prize.

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    1. Thanks a bunch for your kind words, Doug. We'll see if I can keep the steam up with the rest of this project.

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  34. Wow, WW1 in Black and White. What an incredible concept. You've got my attention, but I will not be starting a new period...

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  35. Thanks for your comment Robert! Yeah, its a bit of an 'odd duck' project but I'm enjoying muddling my way though it.

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  36. Well this is certainly a fantastic idea & it will be like watching a series on TV, waiting to see what you will bring to the table next. I look forward to watching this "series".

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    1. Thanks very much Terry! If you wish, just browse forward in the blog and you will see more of the project as it has developed from this past spring. I've managed to complete (in fits and starts) sample representations of most of the principal forces that fought in the West in 1914.

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  37. I think this is brilliant (not the colors...) I think it will capture the feel of the period as we have seen it in photographs, and provide an artistic challenge.

    In art, I like the simplicity of pencil and charcoal sketches as well as the spectacular effect of vibrant oils. This is the figure painting equivalent of the former, and I applaud your creativity and courage!

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    1. Thanks Mark! Yes, I often prefer the starkness of monochrome media (pencil and charcoal, woodblock, etc.) especially with subjects that evoke a particular, introspective mood.

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  38. They look very unhealthy, a bit like zombies.

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    1. Hmm, I guess I can see that. I suppose we'd all look a little unhealthy without any colour...

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  39. I've been kicking around the idea of doing a small force each of bronze Greeks, terracotta Etruscans and iron Celts, all as one would see such figurines in a museum.
    You've done the deed of pushing me further along. Thanks much.

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    1. That is a very cool idea. It will be tricky to get the 'antique' look nailed-down for the bronze and terracotta but it would be a brilliant side-project nonetheless. Best of luck and let me know how it turns out.

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  40. Not only a brilliant concept, but brilliantly executed. The painting is pure artistry! I cannot even imagine how challenging it was to get the perfect contrasts and final look, but you have achieved it. Breathtaking.

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    1. Thank you very much for your kind words, Glen - it's greatly appreciated. This is a project that I work on very intermittently so I'm alway delighted to get comments on the work. Regarding the contrast/tone of the greys, yes, I'm happy that I had the foresight (a rare thing with me) to keep a journal charting the varying paint mixes that I've used for the assortment of uniforms and equipment - otherwise I'd be completely hooped! It's funny, every time I start work on some figures for this project I think they look like complete crap, but then they slowly come together, layer after layer, so by the end they can often possess a haunting otherworldness that I find quite interesting. I realize it's not to everyone's tastes but I've really enjoyed working on the project as it's pushed me as a painter to engage a different part of the brain.

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  41. Hey Curt, wonderful blog and project. Do you have any further updates on this? After seeing this, and having a background in photography, I'm tempted to paint my Finnish army in B&W. I'm just worried that in a year after completion I'll regret it. I have every thing primed black and am just waiting to pull the trigger so to speak. How have you enjoyed the project?

    Outstanding work!

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    1. Hello Jacob! Thanks for the kind words. I've done the bulk of the early-war Belgian and German forces now and am slowly working on the French. I usually try to get a couple units done a year to keep my toe in the water, so to speak. While I find the process of painting greyscale very interesting it is also quite exhausting as it requires precision with a very limited range of 'colour'. Nonetheless, I've loved working on the project and it tested me as a painter. A great recent example of this technique is Nick's desaturated approach to greyscale. Lovely work.

      https://moitereisbuntewelt.blogspot.ca/search/label/Greyscale

      Best of luck with your Finish project, Jacob!

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