I got some nice feedback (thanks!) on the base of my recently completed Maulg figure and a request to explain how I put it together. I happened to take some pictures along the way (for some reason I was giving a friend an unsolicited play-by-play), so I’m able to offer a pretty detailed tutorial on various aspects of the construction & finishing. I’m also happy to share some of my principles, planning, and intention when doing bases and vignettes.
Ok, here we go!
I started with a 1.5” block of wood. This one was made by a friend, and is really nice. The ones you can buy on Amazon are just terrible, unusable in my opinion. Rough cuts, dents & gouges, cheap split wood. Honestly I think you’d be better off stealing one of your daughter’s play blocks… not that I’ve done that!
I always create little topographical changes in my bases. They sell the illusion of reality, help lead the eye around the scene, and create drama. I’ve learned that you need to exaggerate your lumps a little, as the stuff on top can obscure the underlying variations. In my ‘Into the Wild’ scene I was very subtle in the undulations of the road surface, and I think they all but vanished under the texture. As a consequence, the scene seems a little flat.
To start creating the main little rise I just drew in some basic plans of how my hummock was going to sit. You’ve got to leave plenty of room for your figure, but also disguise the fact that he’s essentially sitting on a platform. Nature doesn’t really do that, after all. Once I have a general idea, I sunk two stout posts (paper clip) into the block at different angles. I built my structure around these to help ensure that the little hill doesn’t come lose.
Next I create the foundational structure of the scene with Milliput. Milliput gives you a nice working time, it holds detail well, and most importantly, it interacts with water like clay and it is not elastic.
The rocks coming out of the ground I sculpted using a piece of pine bark for gross texture, and a toothpick & clay shaper to break up the main mass into more plausibly distinct sections. I got some feedback from the great Matt DiPietro at last year’s NOVA saying that the rocks in Yarry’s base looked a little too much like wood, and I think this is perhaps what he meant, that I had created a realistic surface, but left it almost as a pattern rather than a skin upon craggy structures with their own geological history. I tried to leave some sections of the rock sharper than others, make some smoother and others more densely textured, and avoid creating a ‘wall’ with large overall planes.
I like to throw in little counter elevations (as in Yarry’s base) to break up the ground. I know it’s a bit of a no-no to create a rise lifting up at the viewer, but… yeah, I like to see if I can get away with it. It also creates this nice little zone down in the middle of the base for hiding all sorts of wonderful little details and gives you an opportunity to really reward multiple viewing angles.
For the rocks lying in the defile, they help reinforce the notion that natural processes have put things where they are. Maybe this little depression fills up with rain at various points in the year, carrying rocks and debris. To make them I just roll little irregular blobs of Milliput, then maybe chop them up a little once they’re hard. The cuts give them a bit of a broken look. I use a hobby knife and a clipper for that. I try to be a little mushy in my cuts, to keep them from being too sharp. I don’t want them to look like crystals. Try starting a cut, then popping the piece off before you finish the slice. Make extras and use the ones you like.
One last thing: Milliput lets you put nice crisp sides & corners onto your base, flush with the block beneath. It looks cool when the base spills over the edge, but I tend to like a real sharp stop to the scene, as if it has been neatly cut from the world of your imagination. It takes a little time to get it just right, but it looks good.
Test fit your model and drop holes for your pins. You are pinning your models, right?
Using thinned down wood glue I covered all non-rock surfaces, excepting the depressions for the model’s feet, with dirt. Real dirt. Make a dirt sandwich: spread the glue, scatter the dirt, let dry, coat with glue let dry. Hard as a rock.
Then I primed it black and painted it brown. For this first layer I’m using el Cheapo brown craft paint. It looks nice!
Doing this sort of bases involves a lot of consideration of your order of operations. It’s messy, but you just have to confine your mess to an ever smaller area. Oo, it’s so fun!
Next I highlighted the dirt by drybrushing some kind of khaki and a real feathery touch of some sort of bone color. Don’t fret if you get an ugly bit, you can wash it into submission or, if necessary, put a little moss or grass there. There are no worries in basing.
You can see I next move on to picking out the big and small stones. The more little stones you pick out, the better it will look. Up to a point.
I highlighted my rocks with two stages of lighter grey. I already know the orientation of the figure, who has a directional light on him. I must capture that in my highlighting of the rocks, establishing volumes and ‘grain’ at the same time.
Once both the dirt and the rocks are highlighted, I use a cool Japanese watercolor brush to give everything a good bath in some nice dark grey/brown/green wash. Then I start sort of sculpting the placement of the wash to reflect volumes and light direction. I used Army Painter Dark Tone, as the Quickshade line is quite viscous and will tend to stay where you put it rather than seek the bottom (of depressions, of the Earth) the way a traditional wash will. I find this is true even when you water them down, which I almost always do.
I gave the bottom of the rocks a quick touch of dark & light green enamels. You can feather these out really beautifully, and they give a lovely transparent filter. I didn’t want to go heavy with this, as I was building an environment that, while not exactly arid, was looking a little dry & dead.
Which brings me to another important point. I had planned a particular narrative setting from the outset, an idea which informed my unusual choice of color on the model. Now that I was building the base according to that plan, I had to make sure that the colors of the environment nicely set off the big old smurf I had lovingly painted! I was really pushing to create a forest base that didn’t overwhelm Maulg with green, and cracking that nut was the toughest challenge in creating this scene.
Now I gave a wash to the ‘floor’ of the base. I used Secret Weapon Baby Poop. As the father of a two-year-old, I can tell you all about baby poop. And let me tell you, as a wash (the commercial product, not the genuine article), it definitely has its uses. By confining the wash to the lowest area, you can suggest again that the region experiences rain, but that it’s not wet. There is a sheen of green algae stains on only those spots that are last to go dry.
Using thinned wood glue on an old brush, I selectively dotted on some areas where some moss would go. I was not going to put a lot of moss into the scene, but I wanted some. I knew it would help break up the textural & color monotony, and it’s very useful for hiding any gaps down below a figure’s feet!
When I do moss, I use two tones of flock (mine are Green Grass and Weeds from Woodland Scenics), plus a wash and paints to get the depth and variation of color I want. Onto the whole base (not just the spots with glue), I sift a goodly amount of my darker flock. When that’s dry, I again dab on thin wood glue, this time leaving the edges of the original application dry. The second dusting also uses the darker of the two flocks. For the third and final round, I switch to the light flock, once again gluing the moss to a tighter area than before.
By building up concentric layers of flock, you can create nice little cushions of moss. You can use this to your advantage, sometimes shifting your layering to give certain areas of your base a little more volume.
Next I superglued some brown grass tufts. Cut them to shape with your hobby knife, make them smaller, bunch them together, nestle them right up to the edge of the base. From now on in the process, keep your tweezers handy and pull out any blades of grass that are coming out at a wonky angle. Prune them.
With both the moss and the grass in place, I ran a thin wash around the edges of each. This helps them blend into the environment and toned down the green of the moss. Be careful not to saturate the bottoms of the grass tufts too much, or the adhesive that holds them together will soften and you’ll have an ugly mess on your hands.
Next I added some highlights to the vegetation. On the moss I judiciously applied a strong yellow that I used on the chest & belly area of Maulg. Try to keep it light, but know that you can blot or pull out any patches that get too much paint.
I used tan on the grass, reinforcing the directional lighting. I simply ran my brush through the blades of grass in the same direction as the light hitting it. I also put a highlight of ivory on the very tips of the grass.
On Maulg I applied a subtle purple cast in the darkest recesses, so I dabbed in some of the same purple to the ‘back’ of the tufts. These yellow, tan, and purple elements are all sneaking into the base the same tones used in the figure. I think we’re all always trying to find the right balance between fitting in and standing out.
The first thing you’ll notice in this picture is the ‘log’. I’ll probably write up a little tutorial on how I handle these, as there are a few tricks worth sharing. Conceptually, it drives home the idea that stuff has collected in this little ravine. More importantly, it picks up on the sweep of Maulg’s arm. More importantly still, it will serve as the point of connection for the critical narrative detail I imagined when I first began the project.
Perhaps less obvious is the addition of numerous tiny flowers. I like filling specific zones of my bases with a high density of a certain kind of object. That’s how Nature tends to work. Moreover, I really enjoy planting lots of interesting details to be discovered upon close inspection. I wrote a tutorial on how I make these flowers here. Needless to say, I’m still riffing on the yellows on Maulg’s torso. The trick is to reinforce those colors without drawing attention down and away from the miniature and its focal points.
At this stage my base was looking pretty good, but you can push it to the next level if you keep building up layers of information. I added three very small purplish mushrooms, which I tucked deep into the little swale in the foreground of the base. I’ve got a tutorial on how you create those here.
The rushes I made with this stuff. I wish I could tell you what it’s called. I’m pretty sure I stole it from my wife at one point. After trimming them to different lengths, each piece is glued down with a tiny blob of superglue at the end. In a similar way to how I handled the grasses, I highlighted each stalk to reflect the directional light of the scene. After everything was in place, I bent them back against the wind. The direction of the wind mirrors how the back of Maulg’s loincloth is blowing (which it must do), but it also coincides with the light situation (which is a choice).
At that point I had finished the groundwork. You can see from this angle that everything is nice & tight, just the way I like it.
The last element in the base was a blue ribbon. The idea of this detail originally led me to the color scheme of the miniature itself. As a structural element, it really helps to reinforce the dramatic pose of Maulg’s arm. I made it by cutting an aluminum can with an ancient kitchen scissors, then added some tiny holes with a vice.
A goal of mine was to show the wind blowing across this landscape, and I’m pleased at how powerfully that comes across.
After gluing it down, I noticed that the ribbon was lying unnaturally on the branch, so I had to choose between bending the ribbon (and probably breaking the layer of paint) or altering the branch. I decided to add an additional branch to justify the position of the ribbon. I superglued a little stick in place, then filled the gap with several layers of matte varnish. Once the seam was filled, I painted it to match the rest of the log.
Then black on the wooden block, stick it on the shelf, and start dreaming of the next project!
Thanks for reading. Hope some of these ideas and techniques were helpful. Have fun with your next basing project!