Monday, September 23, 2013

Something New from Something Old

For over a year I have been sitting on a stagnant pile of gorgeously sculpted lead for my United Provinces army. I have come to realise that this is unlikely to alter in the foreseeable future - perhaps even my lifetime - unless something is done.

The limitation is uniform and colour information. This has largely been the case due to a vacuum of research and certainty surrounding uniforms and colours for the Dutch Wars of the 1670s - less so for the French but drastically so for the Dutch. I also realize there's not a lot I can do about that.

I have previously flagged a willingness to co-fund a grant but have not pushed it past this Blog as yet. I have dreamt of learning Dutch, living in the Netherlands for a year and doing it myself but it's not possible - not in this life. So until the void is at least partly filled - what to do?

My options are to speculate that the earliest reference to regimental uniforms (those of 1688 as published by Sapherson) might be consistent with the uniforms of the same regiments 14 years earlier. I say 14 years because I want to concentrate on the battle of Seneffe in 1674 - that's the army I want to recreate. But the evidence is simply against me and I know it.

Even within the much reduced time frame covered by Sapherson's work for William's army in the Nine Years War, individual regiments change their uniform colours with alarming regularity. The chances of a previous period being more consistent seems unlikely in the extreme and to suggest it could also stretch over a 14 year period is not just improbable, it's fanciful.

So I have come to a curious option and one inspired by the following image.

Actually, it didn't have to be this image in particular. I'm talking about the time honoured portrayal of warfare in this period by the artists' engraving. Replacing the woodcut, the artist's engraving recorded visual impressions of the characters and events of the age for a rapidly increasing number of increasingly literate people thanks to the exponential proliferation of the printing press. Unlike the periods which followed, this was predominately in our century of interest a form without colour and it is this lack of colour which has caught my imagination.

If I can't discern the uniform colours of my army, then why not dispense with colour entirely? I've always sought to push the boundaries of conventional wargaming and try something new. This may be it.

Here I'd like to acknowledge the work of a fellow Blogger and one of the many I follow: Carmen's Fun Painty Time. Some time ago he created a vignette for a 1930's American gangster mob, all in 'black & white' to capture a feel for the period. As he paid homage to the age of B&W film, might I not think about wargaming in the age of the 17th century engraving?

In a world without colour; light, shade and form become more evident. The eye will be drawn to the sculpting and the modelling without distraction from how well or not I have painted them. Have you ever thought how pure and statuesque some of the superior figures available today look at the undercoated stage - when undercoated white that is?

When asked, "What's all this wargaming about?", have many of us not likened wargaming to a more dynamic chess-like game but with toy soldiers? Well, a table-top without colour gets closer still. More of the game and less of the craft or artistic side of the hobby, yet perhaps not entirely.

Whilst the game comes more to the fore in this option (as I see it) I'm not talking about simply spray-painted figures moved across a bed-sheet. I'm talking about bringing those well known sketches to the third dimension. Unlike B&W photography, where all colour is represented by subtle shades, the engravings of this time are predominately detailed white sketches with an emphasis on shade or more precisely, shadow. I envisage at this time white-sprayed undercoated figures, perhaps inked or 'washed' and a dusting or dry brushed finish. I'd want the finish figures to be like marbled masses; subtle, delicate and worth holding up to the eye.

Perhaps subtler shades of coloured hues for the priming or undercoating for different nationalities. Imagine a light or mid-grey blue for the French, more layered dry-brushing with white which should still render the units essentially white to reflect the artists sketch but with a consistent permeation of subtle colour in the creases and folds, telling our eyes and brain that this unit differs from that of it's opponent. Alternatively, heavier shading will allow for one side to be identified from another but only where there is a need or desire to tell the difference between two distinct sides. Otherwise, coloured undercoats might be a faded brown/orange for the United Provinces, a russet for the British, a dark grey/blue for the Prussians and so on. 

The landscape will be sculpted foam, contoured and sanded with roads and rivulets properly represented in actual depth but all coated white with the depths further indicated with shades of grey. In such a landscape the buildings and the natural features of trees, shrubs and hedgerows might well be best modelled from card stock and foam-core, simplified and made to a series of generic templates in imitation of the artists style for repetition.

It's not a simple fix and much careful consideration needs to be entered into before proceeding. Regardless of the care and application I may make, it would nevertheless result in a significantly faster build time for my first wargaming project in this period. Just think, purchasing the figures might seriously be half the time it takes to get my new armies on the table and playing games.

If in time my knowledge gap is filled with new research and publication: if someone out there colours my world, I will revisit this period in technicolour but for now I am finding this idea almost irresistible.

What do you think?


  1. I am working on it..but it will take some time before something comes out in print. There is information available on the 1672 period, and given the fact there were a lot of regiments and limited possibilties on colours some margin is acceptable...

    1. Thanks my friend and if there is anything I can do to help, let me know. Perhaps when you are ready to go to print I may be able to assist?

      In the meantime I think I'll forge ahead with this idea and replace or rather add colour regiments when I know how. Such is my fascination with this period. It's breathtaking to me that we have figure sculptors and manufacturers in this period but no corresponding research and painting guides. Funny how spoilt we wargamers have become in recent decades that I have come to expect (hope) co-ordinated release of new period ranges.

      I don't mind colourless in this period at this time. My Dutch Napoleonic and WSS units are in colour so I shall remain satisfied with that.

  2. I think this is a perfect Idea, painting your models in a monochrome color
    look up on the internet for the Ranger of Jen Haley a perfect example for this

  3. That's a really interesting post. I definitely share your pain and frustration about researching some of the armies from the 1670s. For a long time I thought about expanding my Nine Years War armies (in 28mm) into the 1670s. This was in the 1990s, when there were only a couple of viable ranges of figures available - Dixons and Foundry. I was limited in figure choices, but the Dixon figures are so wonderful that I thought they could stretch earlier.

    I soon discovered that finding out anything written in English about Seneffe, Cassel and the actions of the petit-guerre of 1672-8 was challenging, and discovering anything about uniforms even more so.

    The conclusion I came to was that trying to find out actual uniform detail for the Dutch battalions of that period was simply going to be a frustrating process. (I had the same sort of trouble when trying to find out more about the uniforms of some of the formations recruited in Germany for William's invasion of England in 1688, but the earlier Dutch War of 1672 was even more obscure).

    My own breakthrough came, like yours, when looking at the art of the period. I visited the Louvre on a work to Paris and, because the really famous galleries were busy, I ended up in the fantastic collection of 17th Century Dutch paintings at the museum. There were a lot of pictures by Philips Wouverman and his School displayed. Many of these were military scenes, but almost none in any uniforms which we'd recognise from the 1690s. Despite this, the figures in Wouverman's "battle scene" paintings are noticeably military - they have a buff coat, or a red sash, and so on. There are flags in some of the pictures, but they are vague and often painted as being battle-ravaged.

    The more I looked into the art of painters like Wouverman, the more I liked the generic approach of painting military figures and thought this could work well for the 1670s on the wargames table. Rather than painting battalions, I would be painting armies - with a more generic feel for the Dutch than the English and French regiments about which more was known. The predominant colours would be brown, tan, red, ochre and unbleached linen. Anything outside these would be rare. Weathering would be typical. Where a regiment was fortunate enough to afford uniforms, these would probably only be a coat of uniform colour and would be brown. I would end up with an army of generic appearance, with standards corresponding to civic emblems or provincial colours.

    I did, in the end, come to think that many painters like Wouvermans were painting "battle scenes" on demand, and possibly had limited experience of any actual military conflict - but that avenue of thinking leads into very different places than getting figures on the wargames table!

    Anyway, good luck with the project - I think it sounds excellent. And don't worry - many people are travelling down the same Dutch Wars road along with you!

    1. Yes it's my hope that my ignorance on the subject will not continue indefinitely. In the meantime perhaps I can create something novel, if not unique out of the darkness.

    2. The Wouwerman studio painted on demand and painted generic soliders and flags to increase market potential. An exception may be Pieter Wouwerman, but I have to study his paintings in real life first.

    3. Rampjaar, thank you! That was certainly the impression I got looking at the paintings and doing some background reading. There are a few (but only a few) art historical/ academic articles written about the "battle painting" genre of the 1670s and 1680s which I managed to unearth years back. I've long searched for a comprehensive description of the studios which produced these paintings and any detail on whether the painters had been anywhere near a loaded musket, let alone a battlefield! I'd be very interested indeed if anyone has any good reference material. Although the paintings are generic, they're almost always evocative and have a real charm to them. Thanks again.

  4. Fellow blogger Curt painted his WWI French in greyscale, take a look at his page, he explains his reasons.

    I do think it'll be a shame not to paint the Dutch up using their proper colours, it should look pretty cool, even if there's a bit of guesswork involved. But each to their own.

    1. Thanks Ray but I suppose I've been so spoilt with facts in my other periods that at present it seems a stretch too far for me this time. For the time being at least. We really have come a long way since the 1990's when I re-engaged with the hobby in earnest. The internet has been a great help don't you think?

    2. Absolutely, I think we'd all be lost without it now!! We'd have to go back to that old fashioned thing called a library!!!!

  5. very interesting idea! id really like to see how the scenery turns ideas are spinning in my head for another distracting mini side project

  6. Well, I think it's a very novel idea and it's got lots of plus points, but I'm too old to be able to cope with such a project. I spent many frustrating years searching for uniform information in the days when Knotel was just a whispered rumour, so I know exactly what you mean. However, when you're faced with the choice of possible wholly inaccurate uniforms or none at all, I think it's a brave decision ( but then I always apply the golden rule: your project, your decisions). Maybe if you publicise the idea enough somebody will turn up with the information you're looking for.

    Me? I'm a coward: I'd fudge it. ;O)