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Theming an army

Most of us do it, sometimes going over the top, sometimes just with a unified colour-scheme and often enough binding the army together just by painting the same symbol on the different shields. However, when we talk about theming here, we're talking about the heavy theming: Using totally different models and adding a hundred little bits and pieces in an effort to recreate, using the elements of our special hobby, a movie, an idea or a book etc.
       Take a movie and try to imitate and recreate many of the movie's elements into the little miniature army – but still keeping it playable and visually obvious what the different elements of the army represents rules-wise! It should be made easy to differentiate a troll from a goblin within the army even if it's based on the movie Avatar or Willow or Harry Potter.

Mushroom army above. I couldn't find more images from the whole army, but it surely looks interesting. I shall provide with a few examples of more or less vanilla themed armies before going into the different angles one can come from when making a themed army:

 A WHFB Lizardmen army with NMM.
 A WotR-army. Fine example of a Haradrim army.

 And a converted Minas Tirith army.

Heavyily decorated
As I said, a well done vanilla army - even with some fine conversions - has the same backstory, and nice painting scheme, but after a while, one gets tired of seeing them again again and starts to think. The first step when becoming a theme-fiend, is to start decorating the bases. The next steps will follow naturally and soon your opponent will complain about having no idea what that piece of rules correleates to that shit model of yours that has nothing to do with your, for example, Gondor army. What? A carroccio? In Gondor?

This is a typical decorated army. The fine decoration of the army and disciplined execution of the idea is making this theme very special, amusing and rare. Do I think it looks good? Not really, but one can still appreciate its various elements and especially accept its overall coherency as something pleasing. It has a strong theme.

A decorated army brings us back to the fact that most army-books and tomes produced has a built in theme. Whether it is a racial one, cultural etc they always have associated colours, sometimes even armour types, banners and many many more things which can exaggerated and used to tie the different parts together, thus making it more easy to add something very characterful or even almost forbidden (fluff-wise) into this highly coherent army. Like a High Elf dragon for Rivendell. Or a Carroccio for Gondor!

 A decorated base. With forest theme. This whole army is one of the best forest/Wood Elf armies I have ever seen! Go to the TWF for more pictures.

Gritty Style army
This is something I really enjoy: Bases that look realistic, battle-hardened miniatures, realistic paint-schemes and a lot of dirt and mud and grit. This is in many ways an example of the decorated army but these two often looks like each other's opposites: A characterful, almost happy army of bells and colours and drums and whistles, against an equally decorated – just in the opposite way, with dirt and hardship – will look diametrical different but are still the same basic idea.
The Special Paintjob
I am actually just thinking of monochrome paintjobs, although there are other examples like OSL-armies, high contrast etc.

The army above is very vanilla in its components, but the basing, banners and the extremely unified colourscheme makes it stand out in an unusual way – it looks cold and efficient, perfect for the models the creator's using. And interestingly enough, if one were to make a direct opposite, with reds and styling the bases with lava and fire, I am sure it would look equally nice.
       This example is in many ways a proof that one needs be skilled if trying to pull this off. How skilled, I do not know, but greatly moreso than the typer of this blog. I would dare say it is easier to theme an army in any of the other ways other than this way! Even if the customizion isn't nearly close to some of the other stunning armies out there! I realize this is personal, but another "proof" is the fact that there aren't that many well done monochromed armies out there. Models, yes, plenty of them – armies, no, not in comparison to other ways of theming an army. Perhaps this is because a monochrome army can look rather dull?

This is not actually a monochrome paintjob. It has a very interesting paintjob (even if the colours are ordinary in themselves) plus some OSL. It is the highly characterful 300 army by Jeff:

This army use many of the different angles of theming, and is perhaps why I am fan of it – at least when looking at the technical parts of it. Warhammer and extremely muscular miniature men aren't my thing, but again, the overall is so much greater than the parts: A highly contrasted paintjob, muscular men, skulls and Warhammer… normally things that'd make me go "Eeeew… " is really one of the better armies out there.

 Above, another great piece of work. An Undead WHFB army with OSL and all the works. Models not overly converted, if I recall correct.

Cultural Theme
Ah, yes, the best one. It is impossible not to succeed with this! You can take almost anything and make a nice theme around it. Anything! You could even make a scissor-theme around your army: Gnomes armed with scissors, lead by Edward etc etc. I am sure there are ways of tying in other things into this. The thing is, if you concentrate on just a singular or few objects to theme around, the viewers of your work, and yourself, will accept – nay, enjoy! – the fact that you are tiying in things that normally wouldn't be associated with each other.
      Like the example we are talking about: Gnomes or Goblins armed with scissors – which at least I have never heard any legends about – but when taking an iconic figure, like mr Scissorhands, people will concentrate on him and accept the overall theme. Even if Edward Scissorhands is about so much else than the "special" hands of him. And this is the core of this article: It is an extremely shallow business, this with theming an army. The only depth you can add is some visual hints that still has to tie into the theme to not stand out and take over. Subtleties, yes, but depth? No. It is difficult, and not the point of theming an army!

Kyte's Fishmen. Sculpted by the man the myth etc. Found on TWF.

Johnny B's Samurai Undead, also from TWF! Very nice.

I intentionally chose this stupid object, a scissor, as an example, not only because there are one laying in front of the monitor, but because it is such bad idea, I wanted to show you theming isn't that hard! Just start with it and the creativity will almost drive the project by itself. You will of coruse need time and get some enjoyment out of it, but those things aren't really necessary: Discipline is often enough. I mean, how often do you really enjoy doing something, anyways? Motivation is overrated.

Also, you will start to use your own imagination – I have said it before and say it again: The pressure of creativity builds easy when confined within a theme. You will come up with more ideas within this very weak theme. This is the nature of these weak and shallow themes of ours, and also its charm.

Terrain theme
Not to be confused with gritty style theming. And generally it should be easy not to make it gritty and "natural" when within the fantasy realm. Terrain, like these forested armies…


… can look really good and accomplish what their respective creators wanted, but when in a fantasy world there are almost no limits in how to create your terrain! And I must admit I am a bit surprised there aren't more armies with "special" terrain. Often enough you can see the "skull-ground" which I personally don't like. And a few special bases, like some sort of chaos base which are very imaginative. But why no "living" forests or special caverns littered with gems (however you would accomplish that) or anything else totally over the top? These kinds of projects where the fillers are more time consuming and more expensive than the actual models…
        Terrain can be swamp, lava, jungle, temperate (northern/southern), snow – ice, for that matter, even though it is very much harder to do, city, special ones like chaos, darkness etc etc. The options are seemingly limitless, but settle for one thing, perhaps the terrain your army is fighting in, fighting for, the natural terrain for them etc, and go from there. Planning is everything, sketch up how all the little bits and pieces are to be arranged – movement trays are more about design and aesthetical planning than artistic freedom! The less hipsy-hapsy freedom and "go with the flow"-bullshit, the better, I think. There are exceptions, but then you are a very talented natural creator and those aren't common.

Common with all these archetypical terrains mentioned above are that each terraintype will probably give you a whole bunch of ideas and words related to them pop up in your brain. Take "swamp" for instance: Snakes, muddy water, swamp plants, frogs, special creatures, jungle thingies, witches and vodoo, H P Lovecraft marsh cultists, the whole faction Fortress from Heroes of Might and Magic III.

Each terrain has so much legends and clichés bound to it that it's difficult not to come up with something personal for you themed army!

Combinations, the End
Not as simple as it sounds. The best armies are the ones combining an excellent execution of their theme and an interesting paintjob – both technical and in somewhat original style (be it monochrome, sepia, high contrast, OSL or a combination there of) – original as in a tad unusual. Unusual normally means: You will have to be a good painter… The thing is, what the theme is about is nearly not as important as how you execute it!
        Combining an army is one of the more pleasurable things within this hobby of ours: Chariots, blocks of troops, skirmishers and special creatures, all tied in well with one another, using the different theming styles (and of course not forgetting the technical ways one can go about accomplishing these things): Culture, Terrain, Decoration, Story (self-explanatory, not really mentioned by me here), a special paintjob, can make your idea that perhaps wasn't that strong in the beginning, pop! Like the stupid Scissors idea. Why not give it a standard paintjob but add ice to it? Polishing a turdy idea can really make it look good, and that's the goal, right? Right.

Let say as an example, that I would have done my Edheldu army using both the decorated and the the gritty style! What an interesting challenge! A challenge I am not sure I know where I would start, though. Is it doable? Why, yes of course! Would it have made the Edheldu army look better? Probably not, because I don't think I had the skill nedeed at that time. But now, after completing this second serious LotR-hobby project? Perhaps. Just take it in small pieces – the creation and design is your least problem. Getting and collecting all the stuff you want can be a hassle but is part of the fun (I guess… ) while the execution of your well planned project is, naturally the hardest. The creation in your mind should in a way go automatic – using all these stereotypes, kitschy reworks and shallow pictures to try to create something of your own.

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