Monday, 23 January 2012

Blog 006 – Beginning with the basics.

The first thing you need to learn when it comes to converting isn’t how to cut or drill, sculpt or fill. These are, of course, important skills and vital to the process, but the very first thing you need to learn will take a damned sight longer to master – I’ve been learning it for 30 years and there’s still times I get it wrong. Thankfully you have all the resources you’ll ever need to learn it right around you.
What am I talking about? Anatomy. Well, gross anatomy in general and kinesiology – the mechanics of human body movement – in particular.
At this point some of you reading this will be saying something along the lines of ‘What good is human anatomy when I want to convert Orcs?’ It’s a fair question – a very good question, in fact – and I hope you’ll find my answer equally impressive.
In order to know how to break the rules you first need to know how they work.
Have you ever seen Les Dawson playing the piano? No doubt some of you will have just nodded (and given away your ages in so doing) but those of you who haven’t can probably check it out on YouTube. Go on – the rest of us will wait.
Back already? Good. As you now know Mr Dawson didn’t just play badly, he played appallingly, atrociously, horrendously. As the Morecombe and Wise joke goes, he hit all the right notes but not necessarily in the right order, and I hope you’ll agree that the end result was hilarious – a British comedian at his iconic best. The fact is that anyone can play the piano badly (and despite many childhood lessons I still count myself among that number) but to break the rules in the way Les Dawson did requires consummate skill. I’m sure it won’t surprise you to discover that he was an extremely accomplished pianist who played for several hours each day (mostly classical and jazz, so I believe).
To translate this to the miniatures hobby you need to know how the human body looks and moves before you can deform it into the modified forms of the Orcs, Orks, Dwarves, Tau and so on. Even a Chaos Spawn has some form of internal skeleton and musculature that defines the movements of its limbs (well, maybe not if it’s a big ball of slime and tentacles, but you get the point I’m sure).
Learning human anatomy also gives a good grounding for horses, hounds, felines, birds and all the other beasties you’ll want to modify. Even dragons, wyverns, centaurs and other fantastic beasts follow the basic rules (look at Nick Bibby’s “Great Spined Dragon” for a tour de force example of realistic anatomy on a fantasy subject – 25 years old and that figure is still breath-taking).
First let’s look at the simple “hinge” joints. Knuckles, knees and elbows are the easiest examples to look at and the easiest to understand, but they show the basic concept of a joint perfectly. A joint is where a thing bends (fingers, legs and arms in the above cases).
I’m going to look at the arm first. So, where does the elbow bend? Does it bend on the outside where the pointy bit is? No. How about on the inside, what’s sometimes called the crook of the elbow – does it bend there? No. The reality is that the axis around which the joint turns is within the arm itself (about a third of the way in from point to crook in fact).
The same is true for the knee (the axis is about a third of the way in from the kneecap), the knuckles and the ankles (each about half way through).
What this means for you when bending a miniature’s limb is that you’ll have to cut in from both sides of the joint – if you don’t then you’ll end up either lengthening or shortening the limb and that affects the proportioning of your figure.
Similar rules apply to the other joints and points of articulation as well. When straightening or bending the torso the point of flexure is in the middle of the spine, about a sixth of the way through from the back. The neck likewise rotates about the cervical vertebrae which is at the back of the neck, not half-way through it. I know it seems as if I’m labouring the point, but understanding the skeleton is important. The movements of the skeleton define the changes in the muscles that are attached to them.
The two toughest joints are the hips and shoulders. Each is a ball-and-socket joint, able to move in multiple ways. Both can rotate about the axis defined by the bone, but each can also swing in and out.
Let me try and explain that last one. If you want to lift you arm out to the side (as if pointing, or firing a pistol) your shoulder shifts upwards and the top of the humerus (the upper arm-bone) describes a little arc. Why is this? It’s because of the complex structure of that joint and the shape of the bones. If you don’t believe me then stand in front of a mirror and look. This has drastic effects on the musculature of the shoulder and upper torso (or thorax). Such modifications to a miniature mean that you’ll face a lot of work to create a convincing change – get it even slightly wrong and the end result will look like a broken doll. It’s also the main reason that I don’t like using those little wooden artists’ maquettes that you can buy – the shoulder articulation is just plain wrong.
The observant among you will have noticed that I’ve left one major joint out – the wrist. This is like saving the best for last, except that it’s the exact opposite. When shifting the hand up or down in a “knocking” motion the point of articulation is simple – just about halfway through the joint – and it’s the same if you move the hand from side to side too. So far so simple. When twisting the hand (as if turning a doorknob) it appears to move about a point that is practically central to the arm, but the problem with that movement comes when you look at the huge changes that it has on the musculature. Of course, if the arm is covered in armour or a sleeve then there’s no musculature to see, but if the arm is bare then twisting the hand means that you’ll need to resculpt the muscles all the way up to the elbow. Go ahead – roll up your sleeve and look at the way that the whole shape of the forearm changes when you twist your hand. It happens because you’re not so much rotating you wrist as realigning the two bones that run through your lower arm (you ulna and radius).
Visual examples of what I’ve talked about abound – look at Leonardo’s illustration of the human body (known as the Vitruvian man) for a start. Grey’s Anatomy – the book not the TV series – is also helpful, but Hogarth’s volumes “Dynamic Anatomy” and “Dynamic Figure Drawing” are absolutely invaluable. Of course the easiest thing is simply to look at the people around you or on the TV and study the way they move, but just don’t let the other-half catch you doing it.
Next time - lots of pretty pictures!


  1. Fair point about the anatomy on models, at the end of the day, most mammals share the same essential structure, it's just squashed/stretched & tweaked a bit depending on the creature.

    Even when I'm just posing multi-part models I try & get it into a natural pose - a lot of the time, this often means I'm stood there 'Assuming the position' while my wife gets a photo.....


  2. Lots of good advice here. Pay attention ladies and gents :)

  3. Damn you Neil. I have just started reading through all of the stated books you use (except Grey's Anatomy, that one I already had).

    Also, just reading through this blog (yes, all of it, I enjoy your writing) you are making me mentally root through my bits box(es) for conversion ideas...