|"Land Dragon w/ Lancer" by Ral Partha, ca. 1978|
The dragon's eyes bored into mine. They were yellow, slitted vertically with a black line. They glistened with illusory wetness, glaring above an open pink maw which was filled with ivory fangs. Ropey strands of saliva hung perpetually from those savage jaws, and the beast reared back on clawed feet forming a threatening, scaly S. Brown wings tinted with gold flecks sprouted from the dragon's ridged back, ready to launch it into the air to rain fire down upon anyone foolish enough to covet its heaping horde.
I gazed upon this tiny beast of legend with the eyes of an eleven year old boy, and when I looked down into the display case at all the grey, unpainted lead figurines for sale I felt a surge of creative hunger. So many forms were echoes of the beasts and heroes I had worshipped as a youngster. There lay a skeleton that conjured the sounds of a battle brought to life by the immortal Ray Harryhausen in the Sinbad films. In the next tray over, a knight upon an armored horse, looking like he had just left the tourney in Ivanhoe. Orcs, goblins, elves, dwarves, vikings, and things which I could not readily name, called to me with the voice of a Mediterranean siren.
The man behind the counter answered my questions. They were simple enough. "How much do these cost?" "What kind of paint do you use?" I chose a dragon, naturally. But not one with wings to threaten the countryside. I chose a wingless dragon. It had a long, lean form and a tail which ended in a large, flat, diamond-shaped spade. It sported a saddle as well as a bit and bridle. These accessories were to accommodate the knight sitting astride the beast. He wore a breast plate and chainmail armor, as well as a conical helmet. A metal rod topped with a sculpted bit of feathers and a pointy tip served as the warrior's lance. I took it home, intent on bringing it to life with the application of some paint.
Looking back, I am forced to smile at my utter incompetence. To be fair, I had discovered an extremely young hobby. I wasn't inept. I was simply uneducated. But then, so was everyone else. The gentleman who owned the small hobby store from whence I had purchased my new obsession had a truly awe-inspiring collection of heroes and monsters. The gold and brown rampant dragon that first caught my eye was only one of dozens that he had painted. I'm not entirely positive that he was self-taught, but the likelihood is high since published material on the subject was limited to discussions of classic toy soldiers and military modeling. The companies that produced these curios of fantasy were in their infancy, and their creations were sculpted by artists that were the best in their day, which is to say they could convincingly render a tiny shape that was recognizable as whatever they happened to be sculpting.
I sat at the desk in my bedroom at home and studied the model. The saddle would need to be brown, as would the reins and the boots on the knight. His little face was the only human skin showing, but the bulk of the dragon was smooth reptilian flesh unadorned by scales or bony ridges. The dragon's mouth was set in a leering grin, showing rows of tightly packed pointed teeth. The bit protruded from the back corners of the beast's maw. The underside of the dragon's neck and belly were parallel bands of skin separated from each other and from the upper portion of the body. They would need to be a different color.
I had learned about the color wheel in art class, but the whole concept of color theory was an arcana reserved for "real" artists. I reached under my bed and produced an old shoe box that was filled with small glass jars of Testor's model paints. My grandfather had purchased the box at an auction and I had used its contents to decorate everything from World War II fighters to hotrod cars. I removed a few colors I thought might work, a larger jar of paint thinner, and a couple of truly horrid brushes. I placed some paper towels on my desk, strained to twist the lid of some of the more venerable paints, and set to work.
When it was done I saw my little dragon knight. He glimmered in metallic silver and gold. His face was the color of a peach crayon, and his triangle of a beard was the same brown as his boots (and the saddle, and the ground the dragon strode across). The dragon's skin had an interesting look to it; a pale, jade green with a silvery tint. This, I would later learn, was due to the fact that I had painted a transparent gloss paint over bare, un-primed metal. The beast's belly was a flat, dull yellow, and his claws and teeth were a shining white.
I was thrilled! Afterward, as I returned home with more and more pieces, I began to try different things. I mixed paint to create new colors. I thinned it so that it would run down into recessed areas, shading them. I learned that all paint is not created equal, nor are all brushes. I discovered the joy of painting with acrylic, water soluble paints.
It has been thirty-two years since I first held a white metal miniature in my hand. In August of this year, for the third year in a row, I entered a national-level competition. The first year I got nothing. Last year I won a silver medal. This year, a bronze. Next year... well, we shall see. I have some really cool ideas.