Terrain & Basing composition

Field in the midst of woodland

Welcome to another blog post!
This time around I wanted to give you some of my thoughts on composing a great scene in miniature. A lot of this is influenced by the teachings of Seth Amsden (CMoN page, Instagram) who puts together some excellent compositions. Of course Oli 'Honorguard' Sp├Ąth and his class from a few weeks ago is another influence.

What you'll notice in this post is that there is nothing in the way of mini pics in this post. I want to focus on the thought processes in this post and will look into following up with practical demonstrations in a future post. We'll look into a variety of things here, focused mostly on creating a realistic composition. The teachings here are applicable to everything from simple infantry bases up to competition dioramas. Although the example photos being used are of the beautiful Surrey countryside - the thing to focus on here is the thought processes and the ways of looking at both the world and your piece.


In putting together your scene, there are 2 components that have to be addressed and if not careful, can frequently come into conflict. This is something that all landscape artists and photographers in particular face but is equally relevant for us mini painters. We want to balance realism with composition. The mind takes a lot of signals, many of which are almost subconscious and when even slightly off - really throw the viewer out of the piece. At the same time, we need to control how the scene looks over all and have all the elements combine into something artistically appealing. Think of how a photographer will move people to compose a shot or will move their position to ensure that a tree will provide framing for a landscape - the same ideas apply here.

Let's start with the big picture composition. Most of the time, your basing will be providing context for a mini (or minis) standing on it. As such it needs to compliment that piece and also draw the eye to that piece as the focal point. You want contrasting colours and complimenting light levels to encourage the viewer to look where you want.

There is another element to consider in your composition - the model's function. This is something that came up in conversation in a group painting hangout earlier this week. Most of my friends on this hangout are primarily gamers who also enjoy having nicely painted minis on the table. Where's all this going? Well you should be adjusting the composition of your piece according to it's purpose... If you want the piece to sit in a display case - you will want something that draws people from across the room but if you want to be moving these around a table every week you have other considerations - will it survive handling, do you want it to match a particular gaming surface, will it match the rest of the army.


Sticking to what we see in the real world as close as possible helps the mind buy into the reality of the scene we compose - this may not be literal replication - the Surrey Downs may not work for that sci-fi death world. Instead take a look at desert, or arctic tundra, or the wastes around Chernobyl or Hiroshima after WWII. Many of these landscapes already look pretty alien... whilst still seeming real. You can further adjust by shifting the colour to something not found on earth... amp up the rust content (Mars anyone?) or shift to a copper sulphate crystal based sand etc.


Gravel track through woodland

heavily trodden natural path turning into man-made path aheadWell used woodland path

Often times you will have characters on paths or trails of some kind. This may be in woodland or tundra or even bare earth. In all instances - creatures will tend to take the same routes, compressing the ground under their feet and making it difficult for plant life to take hold. You can see that it's not a hard edge as well - the middle is the most heavily worn but that wear tapers off to the edges even going as far as to impact the plants growing to either side of the path.


Close up of same body of water showing thickness and green tint

In my opinion water is the hardest thing to do in miniature and is something I've still not really attempted to any great extent. It's well known that SF/X have long struggled with practical water effects. As soon as you try to scale down with water, you notice that surface interactions break down.
Water comes in a whole array of colours, and textures - boggy, clean, bubbling, fast flowing, stagnant. When you are applying water you want to consider things like the weight of the water, the color and the surface texture.

The photos above demonstrate how water is not always blue, how it reflects the color of what is around it and also can hold a color of it's own. Both of these images is of the same body of water - notice how the magnitude of what you look at also changes how it looks. The murkiness up close is quite different to the clarity at a more macro scale.


Coniferous treePhoto of the underside of some branches

Tree trunk with complex colour elementsTree with foliage to one side

Another complex topic. Should you add a tree? No... you should add an oak, or a silver birch or a dead pine tree... there should be a specific type of tree in mind. Look at the texture of the tree's bark, the way the trunks grow, the branches spread, the leaves cluster, notice how the leaves kind of grow above the branches to capture the light. There is a lot going on with a tree and the other things growing on it (ivy, moss etc). Look up from underneath and a tree will look very barren because you're suddenly seeing the branches which you don't see from the sides or above to the same extent. By no means is this even an exhaustive list - look at trees in woods, in parks, isolated trees, clustered trees and you'll see all the differences. Some homework - next time you see moss on a tree - try and work out why it appears on the part of the tree that it appears on... there are two main factors.

I'd also suggest starting simple - work on a lone, dead tree - limit the number of factors you have to incorporate into the piece and then with future models add more components.

Fallen wood

A pile of felled logs

Fungi growing on some fallen wood

It's like a trunk but on it's side right? Not really. Look at the pictures above, compare them to the trees in the previous section. The color of the bark is a little more bleached, the wood inside is a much warmer colour, there are fungi growing on them. And if there's rot in there - the distinction is even more pronounced. There are also other factors like what's the wood (redwood for instance is notoriously hard to rot down), is there woodworm etc etc. Go out there and get your own source photos!

Cracked Earth

Clay earth baked dry and cracked with crabby grassCracked Earth

I've been wanting to get some reference photos for this for the longest time. The current heatwave has been helpful for this. I live in a heavily clay area - clay holds a lot of water and holds it for a long time. When it does finally dry out, it cracks and you get this great effect. It just looks fantastic. Those cracks are easily 30cm deep (foot deep) some even more. Spiders have set up shop in them. There is so much you can do with this. Sure - at a superficial level there are crackle paints and sculpted bases but you can do so much with these. Look at that crabby grass still growing on it, fallen leaves that collect along the cracks.


A clump of grass

There is a whole world of grasses out there. different shapes an sizes. Even a single clump will be made up of different length, color and shape blades. They need a lot of light to grow and you'll often see different varieties butting up against one another. They also grow on almost any surface and don't need a lot of dirt to grow in making it very versatile texture of almost any base.

Simple undergrowth

Fern floor cover, South of EnglandWoodland floor covering with litter and ferns

Floor cover in woodlands is kinda tricky. Most of the hobby products around are 'grasses' and maybe 'fallen leaves'. Sure, that's great... and a loan tree will have grass growing all around it. But grass needs a lot of light... the floor of woods doesn't see enough light. You get other plants there, ferns and ivies that stretch across the ground.

Dense undergrowth

Image from inside a small tree tunnelA long, narrow tree tunnel

I have a bit of fetish for 'tree tunnels' they are pretty common in England. Above are some small examples in my local park... These are a both difficult and amazing to use in a model and something I'd love to emulate some time. The shape naturally draws the eye to the center... but the center is very dark which will mean you need to find a way of giving a model placed there some pop. Here is an example of this executed in a real model by Seth Amsden. You can see in this model that the trees around draw the eye to the center and the lantern off-sets the natural shadows caused by the overhang.


A quick note on rocks - I don't have any pictures of rocks. Why? THERE AREN'T ANY (well kinda). This is a bit of a bugbear of mine but you don't really find many rocks in nature. Bark makes for great rock effects as you can see in the post I did for the basing class. Of course rocks do occur in nature... but trees don't grow out of rock; they need a huge depth of earth for the root ball. Sure it looks pretty having some trees growing out of some beautiful grey slate but it's always going to read as 'fantastic' because it could never happen in reality. Of course if it's scrubland, desert, a cliff - then it could well be more rocky.

You can see this 'fantastic' register when you look at the base I did in the class. Being a class piece I wasn't interested in realism - I was focused on developing the techniques. I paid attention to composition and so the model looks good, but it leaves a bit of a break where there is something 'off' about it. Not enough to throw you but enough that there is a disjoin. There are a couple of things; the rocks, the nature of the grasses and how they are placed (particularly relative to the trees). It's little enough that it can survive a 'fantasy setting' label but it's not what I would normally go for.

There may be a tree or two on top of rocks but they will be scrawny, struggling to grip and draw nutrients from the rock. It will also depend on the material of the 'rock' - here I'm talking about what we think of as rock - granite / natural marble / slate. Things like clay and sandstone have a very different look and will support more growth.

In all of these suggestions there are exceptions and ways to abuse the rules or realism to get what you want, but before you break the rules - you should be aware of them and consider them. Hopefully this has gotten you thinking about your basing and maybe given you some inspiration for future projects. I think the key take away is to take some time and think about how the scene came to be the way it is what colours, growth, shapes and forms are natural... and reference photos are amazing - get lots.

- Raggy, signing out