June is my favorite month, and not just because it is the month of my glorious birth. See, June is number 6 and means that our year is both half over, and yet still half full of fun stuff we can look forward to; and this June might be one of the coolest yet with our interview with master miniature painter Mathieu Fontaine.
Proving The Junkyard might have the most eclectic taste in art on the collective interwebs, our interview with Fontaine explores a whole new world of artistry that I am both fascinated with and bewildered by. So join me on the ride – learn about a subculture that is, apparently, bigger than god and more interesting than whatever else you were planning on reading this month. Or this year. Just sayin’.
Junkyard Arts: First and foremost, how about you tell me exactly what is it that you do. Do you call it miniature painting? small figure painting? sculpture painting? I want to make sure I have the lingo down – I am, as you may suspect, a total novice in this area.
Mathieu Fontaine: We usually say miniature painter. If we talk about someone building and painting model kits we would say modeler or military modeler if he is focusing on tanks and such. What I do is simple. I take figurines or model kits usually designed for various game systems and paint them to the best of my abilities. What is for a lot of people a simple hobby has become more of a passion as well as a job for me. Basically I paint toys for a living.
JYA: You are very modest. I admit that before I had really seen much in the way of miniature painting, I thought it would be a nice little hobby but after seeing your work, I am pretty blown away at the skill and manipulation of your materials. I mean, toys, sure, but your stuff is pretty insanely good.
MF: It is nothing new. People have been painting figurines for ages. Might it be dolls or soldier figurines of the regiment former soldiers of Napoleonic or Civil War belong to. Historical painters have been around for a while. High level fantasy painting, basically what I do, is more recent. Believe it or not but it can be traced to the early beginning of Dungeons & Dragons from which most fantasy games evolved. Fantasy painters have brought acrylic to the forefront replacing oil paints and are behind most of the development of techniques and styles for the last decade in miniature painting.
JYA: How did this all start for you? Were you a traditional painter before hand or was it something you started doing because of Warhammer 40k and other roleplaying games like the infamous D&D?
MF: My fine arts training consisted of the basic class we all did in high school. You know the one during which we learn the basic principles of the color wheel to forget all about it the day following the exam?
JYA: Sadly, that was my college experience, just don’t tell my family that.
MF: Ha. My parents kept buying me model kits of rockets and such when I was a kid which I was painting with that toxic orange carrousel of testor paint. Honestly I had no patience for them and not much abilities either. I discovered miniature painting when I was around 16. I was hanging at my local gaming store playing Magic the card game. I have always been a geek. On a specific day I remember seeing two armies for Warhammer Fantasy Battle deployed on a table ready to destroy each other. I simply had to get into that game and there it all started.
For years I did like most other in this hobby. I was spreading paint around as quickly as possible to be able to play with them. I always wanted a better looking armies than the others though. From that point it has been self-taught.
JYA: At what point did your painting go from a hobby to a career? Was there a major turning point in the activity for you that led you to be a professional painter?
MF: It was a slow process. It took me a few years to develop my techniques. Miniature painting is primarily based on flawless technique. The medium being so small there is not much place for a more graphic style. Once techniques are mastered you can work on developing your style and such. Honestly it is still in process, a process with ups and downs but overall I cannot complain so far.
JYA: From what I hear, you are a pretty big fish in the field. How big is this industry – the gaming, the miniature competitions, the whole shibang? I know of the games, and radio and blogs…
MF: The gaming industry is pretty big indeed. As you said the development of social networks, podcast and other media definitely contributed to that. The painting/sculpture aspect, and by that I mean the high level or competitive aspect, is much more small. A lot of people do aspire to it but most will simply give up before achieving their goal. Several persons think that we have magic tricks that we keep for ourselves that allow us to paint masterpieces in an afternoon when in fact the only secret is time. As I usually say during my classes, you do not become a professional hockey player by slapping pucks in your backyard. It takes dedication and hard work. Miniature painting is no different, except for the salary…
JYA: Sure, the field is a little smaller but regardless, the ones in it are highly competitive (read: talented) and you have won numerous competitions around the world…
MF: Yes we could say I am pretty famous in this hobby but at the same time it is a pretty small field. We do not see each others as competitors. Yes we compete against one another, yes we do not like everyone, but in fact, most of the time we are friends. We share tips and critiques on our work, congratulate those of us who won and are usually out for beer before saying “see you next time”. It is a great community.
JYA: Tell me about the competitions that you participate in; are they strictly painting or is it a larger convention that includes painting competitions?
MF: There are two types of competition, open and podium format. I am aware that competition in art is not common. The subjectivity implied in the craft makes it hard to be something judged and properly classified.
The podium format is probably the more cutthroat one. It’s like any other classic competition. There is one gold, one silver and one bronze per category. The categories separate different types of miniatures in more organized groups. It is hard to judge a tank besides an infantry model let say. It would be like trying to compare a painting with a sculpture. The problem with this format is that with only three prizes available it often becomes a question of which entry the judges prefer on a more personal basis. So a stupid little thing can mean you are on or out of the podium.
JYA: Interesting – while traditionally art doesn’t seem to be put on a pedestal in a competition with other art, one might say that auction blocks do just that. So the open format is a little more forgiving?
MF: The open format is judged along merit in a broader sense. The competitors will enter a display of their entries. There are no specific categories usually. There will be some distinction along various size of miniatures or something which has been fully sculpted compare to something simply painted out of the box. Instead you enter according to the level you would attribute to yourself. You will usually find junior or beginner, intermediary and advanced or master level. As said you are judged on merit which means that if 12 persons in intermediary deserve a gold medal, well, 12 persons will leave with a gold medal.
JYA: How many medals or competitions have you won?
MF: I have had the honor to win at several international events, both in North America and Europe. There is a few more shows I would like to attend, maybe next year. Otherwise I mostly paint for myself now. Yes winning is always good but I have made my mark and have nothing to prove anymore. I always seek improvement but the win is more for myself than the recognition nowadays.
JYA: Anything you are most proud of? Or that you like doing the most?
MF: I do not have a piece of work that I am most proud of. I usually say “the next one” in answer to this question since we always try to be better. Some of the pieces I have painted in the past have a more sentimental value since they won at key competitions. People often ask me if I rather paint a simple infantry footman, a huge alien like monster or a tank. The answer is I do not have a preference. It always depends on the model itself. If I see a figurine and go: “Wow! I need to paint that!” there you go. I strongly believe that you produce your best work when you are motivated and the best way to be motivated is to like the subject you are working on.
JYA: Who are the judges at these competitions and how do these competitions arise – like, is there a schedule that happens yearly or do these things just happen?
MF: The judges are either employees of the sponsoring company, painters from the local club or association or others invited to participate in the process. I myself had the chance to judge several events. The first thing judges will look at is the technical aspect. As said previously, the miniature are so small that you really need to master the techniques. You need perfect transition of colors and sharps details. The second aspect will be the composition. Is the light well developed? Are the colors in harmony? Is the piece telling a story and is it obvious? Part of it is fairly objective. You have it or you don’t. A large part though is pretty subjective which can bring heated discussion among judges.
Competitions are either sponsored by companies or local associations or clubs. When companies are behind the events they are usually promotional windows for them and part of a larger convention. You need to make sure you respect the universe or intellectual property of the company. It might sound restrictive but most of the time these “universes” are pretty large so there is always room to explore and most of the competitors are what you could call “fanboys”. Most open format are organized by local clubs or associations and are usually more open minded and less restrictive. Some of them have become major events attracting worldwide painters.
JYA: What trends do you see emerging in your field? How do you see your work, as an artist, contributing to or steering away from these trends?
MF: There are certain trends that did emerge in our field over the years. Some disappeared and other stayed. As for as what will emerge, it is hard to tell. It is not a craft in which there is a sense of fashion that need to change every season. Our medium is confined to a 3 dimensional figurine. We do not work from a blank canvas so we do not have the same freedom as most painters. Most people in our hobby are pretty conservative as well. Innovation is welcome as long as it stays within acceptable boundaries. Some of us will occasionally try to push on these boundaries with more or less success.
To be honest, I have a hard time considering myself as an artist. I find the term “artist” too easy to attribute to anyone as soon as he dabbles with paint or some sort of craft. Art technician would be more appropriate I think. What I do in fact is to paint a miniature that was sculpted by someone else which in turn based himself on a concept drawn by someone else which in turn was probably directed by another person.
There are only a few people in our craft that I would labelled as artist. They englobe the entire process of creation on personal project from brainstorming to sculpting to painting. Their work in these cases are truly original and demonstrate an artistic process. Two names come in mind: Rémy Tremblay and Allan Carrasco.
JYA: So then are these two people you would consider inspirations for your own work?
MF: The artist that influenced me the most is definitely Frank Frazetta. I love his palette of colors and his composition…Paul Bonner had a definite impact on my work as well. After that I will be influenced by various sources. It always depends on what I have recently liked when I start a project. Might it be an exposition at a gallery, a cutscene during a video game or a page from a comic book. I sometime see something and tell myself that I have to try that color scheme on a new piece. I might keep these colors around for a long period of time or I might simply move to something new on the following project.
JYA: Tell me about your decision to start traveling and teaching painting classes.
MF: I first started to teach the Masterclass at my local gaming store. When I first started to get serious in this hobby we had invited two French painters in Montreal to give classes. These had been a huge helped for me. You can read all the tutorials you want or look at all the videos you like but there is nothing like seeing it live or having someone over your shoulder to correct your mistake. I wanted to share this experience with others. I strongly believe that the survival and development of the hobby depends on its evolution and sharing is the best way to achieve this. We have nothing to gain by staying at our secluded workstation. From that point, some people that could not afford the trip started to ask me what it would take for me to teach the Masterclass in their local area. It all developed from there. So far the response has been really good.
JYA: What are some of the things other painters will learn in your classes?
MF: When I give a class I assume that the students do not know anything about painting miniature. The goal of the class is to explore and become familiar with the various techniques for high level painting. The class goes in depth with all the concepts, both theoretical and practical, of miniature painting from the beginning to the end of a project. I use a one on one approach making sure to observe several times how each individual student works in order to help him out. This is where the class becomes more personal. The more advanced painter will be pushed further and I’ll make sure that the beginner has solid roots before pushing him more.
JYA: And these are the things that make your master classes more beneficial than others.
MF: I have a hard time saying what make me special as an artist or different than the others. I think it is more a question others would have less difficulty answering. I would hope that the use of high level of contrast, well developed composition, integrating military weathering techniques and airbrushing would come out.
JYA: What is some of the best advice you have received, and given?
MF: I guess the best professional advice I got was to never overbook yourself. There is always the time you think it will take you to complete the project and the time it actually takes. Unfortunately your initial estimate is, most of the time, short. If you take too many project at the same time, the first thing you know is that none of them are completed on time and delays just keep piling up.
As for the craft itself the best advice is simply to always push yourself outside your comfort zone. There is no other secret in order to improve. It is when you satisfy yourself with what you have and stop challenging yourself that you stop improving.
THE SAME QUESTIONS WE ALWAYS (SORTA) ASK:
Materials most often used:
Favorite work of art:
Empress Josephine and The Abduction of Psyche, both from Prud’hon. I am always mesmerized by the white skin tones of these two paintings whenever I have the chance to look at them.
Favorite place to visit:
La Grande Galerie at the Louvre
Favorite source of inspiration:
Frank Frazetta and Paul Bonner. Both artists, in their own way helped me redefine my use of color.