Let it snow let it snow let it snow… Well, here in Denmark it has been a dreary, grey and rainy christmas as usual, so why not make the snow our selves? This is the perfect time for a snow tutorial.
Back in october I went to Scale Model Challenge in Eindhoven. The main piece I made for that one was my celtic chieftain Cynwrig standing on his vanquished foe’s shield in the snow. Back then I made Facebook live updates on my process of making the snow on his base. This step by step tutorial is based on the pictures from those live updates, but with a proper in-depth write up on the process.
Making snow bases is not an exact science, there are probably hundreds of “right” ways to do it, but this is my way. It’s a very organic thing, it kind of has its own life and you just have to go with it and not loose too much control. There are of course some hard and fast methods and, if you will, rules to follow, like doing things in a logical order, but you need to keep an open mind and be ready to improvise and adjust your methods from piece to piece.
This kind of snow base is very fragile and should never be touched after it is finished, lest you disturb the snow. Therefore it is not recommended for gaming miniatures, but only for showcase models which are not likely to get banged around and handled a lot. It looks very realistic though.
In preparation, it is a good idea to watch snow, look at reference pictures and kind of analyse how snow works, so to speak. Freshly fallen snow has a very pure surface, very smooth, but with a little texture from the snowflakes on top. Once you start stepping on top of the snow and mess it around, that changes dramatically. The snow gets dirty, compressed, uneven, it becomes very different. There are many differences in snow, if it melts a little or if it is frozen hard,if it has been lying undisturbed for a long time, it gets a very hard smooth surface. Often snow melts a little, then freezes again, then more snow falls on top and you get a little ice underneath the snow and that shows at the edges. When the snow starts to melt you normally get water at the edges and that kind of eats into the snow, that is the water that freezes and becomes fresh ice when the weather gets colder again. You can have icicles and even little frozen bodies of water or streams. You can have a body of running water with a lot of ice and half melted snow all around, I’ve got to make one of those one day. Undisturbed snow get a little sparkly in the surface.
The miniature itself gets affected by the snow. If snow has fallen recently, he will have snowflakes in his hair maybe. If the weather is very hard he can have snow everywhere if , on the other hand our hero has been inside when the snow fell and he went outside after he will not have any snow on his upper body but maybe a little on his feet. A cape will typically get dragged through the snow so it accumulates at the capes edges. A fur collar on top of the clothes will also typically accumulate some snow which sort of sticks to to hair of the fur, so if snow is falling, the snow will stay in the fur but melt if it hits a bare body underneath, which is warm. Use a little common sense about this and think about proximity to higher temperatures.
In that way snow can easily become a tool in our storytelling like dirt, mud and weathering. Before you start to put snow on your newly painted miniature, stop and think a little about the snow. Decide how cold it is, make some choises about the miniature and his environment, was he outside when the snow fell? Is he wet? What happened in the snow? If a battle has just been fought the snow will be a trampled mess, if our miniature is hiding in the snow or stalking some prey, they snow will be smooth and pristine. Maybe you can see the tracks of the enemy, that he is following or maybe you only see the tracks of the miniature itself…
Before the snow starts to fall you need to be prepared. The miniature and the base has to be finished, you don’t want to have to paint more on the miniature after you have put snow on it, that will be too difficult. I painted my Cynwrig in slightly blue tones all over to make him seem really cold and kind of make him interact with his environment -it is a good idea to bear in mind what you want to do with your miniature when you paint it. Dark colours will contrast nicely with the white snow, but the snow can make the dark colours seem even darker. The red shield on my base provides a nice contrast of warmth to the cold snow and the cold blueish collors I used everywhere.
The story of my chieftain Cynwrig is that he has just fought a rival warrior who wanted to take over power in the tribe. Cynwrig won the fight and is now standing triumphantly on his opponents shield, daring anyone else to oppose him. To communicate that I need my snow to be trampled flat under our warrior, where they have been fighting and I need a little smooth snow, where they have not been rolling around. I would also need some lumbs of snow and ice, that have been dislodged during the fight. Cynwrig would also have some snow on his clothes.
Now that the miniature is finished, what do we need to make a snowbase? I use bicarbonate of soda, aka natron, to make the snow. It is a very fine white powder which can even look a little glassy. It also has a very special way to react with water which I will take advantage of in my proces of making the snow. I use PVA glue. I use a little bit of clear matte acryllic varnish, clear gloss acryllic varnish and some turquoise acryllic paint, you can also use other cold nuances, like blue or purple. I also use an airbrush. I use some crushed glass, I have this product from Secret Weapon, but it is possible to crush a little glass in a mortar, I did that once, but it was very difficult and hard work. Use extreme care when you handle crushed glass, protect your eyes and use a dust mask for breathing, you really don’t want crushed glass inside! it can be very harmfull! And never ever scratch your eyes with crushed glass on your fingers, Always wash your hands imediately after handling such stuff, safety first. Making the snow base can be very messy with all that natron and all, so be sure that you are in a well ventillated area where it is ok to make a little mess and get a little dirty.
To get started I crush some of my natron with mortar and pestle. The Powder is fine, but you can make it even finer and you need that to fit small scales like 28mm or in this case 54mm.
At first I use an old brush to smear some PVA glue on the base. I use it straight from the bottle, it is not to be diluted. I put the glue on all the surfaces where I want snow. That should be all horizontal surfaces. Note the red shield from the opponent on the base, it has been jammed violently into the hillside during the fight, so it is not covered in snow, but it sort of comes into the snow on the side where it is jammed into the ground, and there is snow underneath it.
When I put the glue on I make a thick smooth layer where I want the snow to lie undisturbed, that helps to bring vollume to my snow. Where the snow is supposed to be trampled I make a thinner and quite uneven layer.
Note the glass in the background, that is all the natron that I crushed in my mortar in preparation for this project. I make sure to make plenty and save the leftovers in a sealed plastic bag, for the time I am to make a snow base.
Now it is time to get messy! I pour a lot of natron all over my base. making shure I hit all the glue. It is supposed to be a thick layer, so don’t be shy. I placed my miniature on an old saucer, that I sometimes use for a palette, to contain some of the natron and avoid having it everywhere.
I let this sit and dry for about half an hour.
Then I remove the excess natron. I took my miniature outside, blew the natron off and used a big soft brush to brush snow of from the plinth and other areas where it stuck and weren’t needed. If you do not have the opportunity to take it outside and blow on it, then at least use a dustbin to shake and brush as much as possible of, this can get very dusty and messy.
After cleaning of the excess natron, take a good critical look at your snow base and make sure there is enough snow on it. If there is too little, add more glue, springle more natron, let it dry for 30 minutes, clean of the excess natron, now you should be ready to move on. Though one springling of natron theoretically should be enough I always end up adding more once or twice before I am satisfied. It also helps you to build up the effect.
When you are satisfied with the placement and amount of snow on the base, it is time to fix the surface a little. I take an old lid from pickles or something of the kind and use for a palette. I put a little natron and a little of my crushed glass on the palette.
Then I load my airbrush with water to which I add a little bit of matte varnish. It is very important that you dial down the pressure of the airbrush as far as possible, or else you just end up blowing all the natron off and you can start all over.
Using the airbrush I spray the surface lightly with my water-varnish mix and the natron kind of solidifies. The natron is water solluble, so it almost melts together and get a homogenous, slightly smoother surface from the water and varnish, very snowlike. Imediately after, when it is still wet I springle a little crushed glass on the smoother surfaces of snow, don’t do it where it is trampled down. The crushed glass gives the snow that sparkly effect I mentioned earlier. It is not apparently visible on a photo like this, but it sparkles nicely when you turn the miniature around under a light. At this point you can also add a little natron if you want to make the surface a little rough. Pay attention to the area of trampled snow you can use a tool like a toothpick or a brushhandle to press it down a little so your trampled snow stays flat.
Now it is time to make dislodged clumps of snow on the shield and in the trampled area between the feet of the miniature. The idea is that in the heat of the battle the shield has been pushed violently into the hillside, that is also the reason that I put snow underneath the shield, because the snow was there before. When an object is pushed into the snow like that, clumps of snow will break of and fall down, these are the ones I am going to make now.
I mix a little PVA glue with some natron and some of the crushed glass, it quickly clumps together and you can now take pieces of this and place them in logical places on the shield and ground. They will mostly gather on top of the reinforcement bar on the shield and in the area imediately below the point where the edge has dug into the ground. Let gravity work for you, because such pieces will allways fall or slide downwards and gather where something stops its movement. Don’t worry if the clumps of snow get too big, they can easily be parted with a sculpting tool or cut with a knife and then pushed back together. When you place them on the figure, they can be pushed around and placed just right with a wet brush, make sure that the water is 100% clean when you work with snow. The glue in the snow clumps will normally make it adhere to the surface, but if you have any problems with that, a little matte varnish will help. While I work with these clumps of snow I can also make little additions whereever I think it will be needed, making little adjustments to the snow effect all over. Once I finished with the clumps I sprayed them with my Varnish-water mix from the airbrush. Remember to keep the pressure down!
Now it is time to work downwards in size, zoom in so to speak. Now I add small clumps and single snowflakes. They will typically gather at the bottom of the cape, the shoes, the trousers and the fur collar and maybe a little at the shoulders and hair, think a little about what is going on when did it snow, what is he doing in the snow?
I have a little natron ready on my palette and a little matte varnish, which I thin down with water. I dip my brush in the varnish, then dip it in the natron and then get little clumps that look a little like wet snow. you can always part the clumps down to smaller sizes so you can make it look right. Then I transfer my wet snowflakes over to where I want them on the miniature, the varnish will stick them to the miniature. I build up this effect slowly and patiently taking my time to make it look good. Sometimes stepping back taking a good look at my miniature, adding a little here, a little more there patiently building it up to the amount that I want. You can also add a little crushed glass to some of these snowflakes to make them sparkle here and there or even look like tiny bits of ice.
The reason that I always use matte varnish for such a job as this one is that when it dries in between my bits of snow it becomes practically invisible because the matt varnish matches the surface of paint underneath. Gloss varnish would make gloss spots that would look a little wet and very wrong and messy.
I keep working the snowflakes patiently for quite some time, adding them to different parts of the miniature. I did a lot of build up on the bottom of the cape where it would drag through the snow. The fur collar got quite a lot of snow too, because snowflakes would get caught in the hairs. The trousers and the shoes got some build up as well of course. I also put some snowflakes on the red shield on the ground, not so much because it would have been snowed upon, but because the snow breaking of and gennerally getting disturbed by the shield being pushed violently into it, would come of in all sizes and some of them would naturally be very small like single snowflakes and ice chrystals. many times I would step back and take a look at my miniature, get a feel for it, maybe add alittle more here and there. I also put some random snowflakes in his hair, on his shoulders, even his helmet. Finally when I was satisfied I sprayed on a Little water-varnish mix with the airbrush -keep that pressure Down!
Now the snow build up is done, on this Photo you can clearly see the different kinds of snow; underneath our warrior it is trampled flat, it is broken into clumps at the red shield. On the branches in the background, under the shield and behind Cynwrig the snow is smooth and untouched.
Now is the time to finish it!
I make a very thin glaze of water and turquoise paint. I mean really thin! like I fill the cup of my airbrush with water, load my brush with paint once and stir it in. This thin glaze is then sprayed on the snow under the figure, to create a shadow, in other shaded areas of the base and on most of the snow on the cape and trousers. Add a little extra on the part of the cape that is between his legs. this glaze should be so thin that it merely tints the snow a little and you should apply it irregularly, building up the effect over several passes. Do not worry about overspray on the miniature or the exposed groundwork, this slight turquoise tinting only helps to communicate the cold environment and tie everything together, so in my opinion overspray is a disirable part of the effect. you can vary the colour of this glaze, using dark blue, light blue, maybe a cold green or even purple, it is all a matter of the mood of the model and whatever fits in with what is already there. And you guessed it: keep the air pressure as far down as possible, you don’t want to blow of all your snow and start all over.
Once I am satisfied with the glaze I put a little gloss varnish here and there in the edges of the snow. This represents snow that is melting a little, you can also add some water effect if you want more snow to melt. You can also add icicles at this point, that is all a question of taste, storytelling and environment. Actually I had planned to add some icicles to this one, but omitted them because I was quite satisfied with my result now and did not want to make it too Christmas’y and drag too much attention from the miniature to the groundwork. It is quite important for me, to be able to make such choices, instead of allways complete any idea whether it is a good one or not. The addition of a little gloss varnish or ice at this final stage is important though as it enhances the sparkly effect of snow and frost and that helps us to understand the environment of the miniature and his setting, like in theater a little exaggeration is sometimes needed.
So now my Cynwrig is finished, I am satisfied with all the snow and he is good to go. 🙂
The model used: Celtic Chieftain III century BC by Romeo models.
I hope you enjoyed the article and can find it useful. Always remember that this is not an exact science so everything you do in this should be a little fluid and adjusted according to the job at hand. My methods are always in flux and develop from project to project. In here will certainly be some useful tools for the job and a logical order in which to apply the different effects.
Until next time