Thursday 29 October 2015

The Harlequin: An interview with Darren Matthews

Iconic cover art from the original Rogue Trader released harlequins. But what do they have to do with Darren Matthews? Read on. 
Oldhammer is a product of two things. Nostalgia and Social Media. Without both of these, we wouldn't have the community that so many of us enjoy today. And it's an international community too, with regular events held in the UK, US and beyond. The ease of communication that modern technology allows has fuelled our considerable growth over the last three years and facilitated the organisation of events, trades and research impossible a decade ago.

We must owe the existence of this latest Old School interview to Social Media as its subject, Darren Matthews, became part of the online Oldhammer Community through the Facebook Group. In case you do not recognise the name, he was one of the original members of the 'Eavy Metal team way back in the later part of the 1980s. But Darren's connection to Citadel and Games Workshop doesn't just begin in the later part of the decade - he was involved from practically the beginning, as we shall see.

Thankfully for us all, Darren was more than willing to exercise his memory and draw deep into the Warp to bring us some recollections of his time with the company - doing the job all of us really wanted to do: paint miniatures for money. So, on behalf of Oldhammerers everywhere, I will thank Darren for giving up his time to talk to us about his time at Games Workshop.

RoC80s: So what first got you into fantasy gaming and miniatures?

DM: I first got into Fantasy via watching movies and my Dad was a massive fan of Jason and the Argonauts so I suppose it went from there. I bought my first Citadel minis in around 1980 at a little shop on Steep in Lincoln. They were the Fantasy Tribe Skeletons. Kobolds were my next purchase and things sort of went from there. A Toy Shop in Lincoln started to sell blister packs and it was an open road from then on. Around 1985, I met Chaz Elliot in Lincoln and he got totally hooked on fantasy miniatures and I was in awe of his painting and practiced to emulate. A shop also opened in Lincoln that just dealt in fantasy miniatures and games so I started painting for the display case in the shop for lead. Also, I read the Colour Of Magic in its first ever release by a certain Mr Pratchett and was totally hooked after. I never got into gaming or could get my head round it but was collector and painter from the start.

Fantasy Tribe Skeletons: Darren Matthew's first Citadel miniatures.
RoC80s: So you were rather experienced with fantasy miniatures and their painting by the time you began working for Games Workshop. How did you get the job of painting professionally?

DM: In early 1987, when I was in my early 20s, I moved back to Nottingham and enjoyed collecting and painting miniatures. The work I had been doing in archaeology had come to an end through a cut in funding and I decided to send a sample of my painting in to the studio but with no real hope that it would lead to anything. A week later, John Blanche turned up at my front door and offered me the chance of working in the studio!

I was stunned to say the least at the time and until then thought my painting was nowhere near good enough for White Dwarf.  Sean Masterton, who was the then editor of White Dwarf, turned up with John. It was after work I found out later and they were going for a curry!

My first day was one of nerves beyond belief and a real baptism of fire meeting the established painting team. At that time, The 'Eavy Metal studio was comprised of Mike McVey, Colin Dixon, Dave Andrews and Sid and John Blanche was our boss. Tony Ackland and H also shared the studio and I really felt out of my depth. After a few weeks I understood most of the banter and what was required of a full time painter in the studio. 

Some of the other 'Eavy Metal boys from Darren's time. Lee 'I have a magnificent set of '80s curtains' Dudley was helping out during his summer holidays. Lucky bugger!
RoC80s: You mentioned the elusive Sid the Painter. We don't know much about him beyond a few photographs and an article or two. What can you tell us about him?

DM: Sid was called Tim Croxton. I think that is how you spell his surname and he came from Eastwood. He was a very intelligent guy, but a bit of a rebel. He was very good natured deep down when you got to know him.He was big into his motorbikes and cars. I don't know what happened to him after he left and I left not long after as the studio vibe had started to change.

RoC80s: What were the early days like training to be a Studio Painter?

DM: For the first few weeks I finished off old projects that had been on the back burner; such as the Wood Elves, Orcs and Snotlings from the fantasy ranges. Gradually, I was given new releases to paint before they would appear in White Dwarf, normally the following month. I also started on a few things in my spare time and meeting the Perry Twins who worked in a different part of the studio started me off on collecting historical miniatures. Bryan Ansell was the owner of the company and we always got on well when I met him. John Blanche encouraged me to experiment with paint and inks and try new painting techniques that I hadn't thought of using before. 

I have always considered John the total master of painting and Mike McVey a very close second. We all had different painting styles at the time and don't think there was a house technique to painting at the time. Gradually we saw the artwork that Tony Ackland was working on for Realms of Chaos and gradually the miniatures arrived in the studio to paint. Some of the sculpts I adored but others I wasn't so certain about and but still enjoyed painting a lot of it.

Darren's iconic colour scheme for this Ork noble. Come on, how many of you have copied this one? Below we have examples of his Chaos Dreadnought and an early Imperial Guard Sentinel. 

And here is the same model in digital form. Photograph by Steve Casey. From The Bryan Ansell Collection, Wargames Foundry, Stoke Hall Stables. 
The sentinel too, though a little blurry. Photograph by Steve Casey. From The Bryan Ansell Collection, Wargames Foundry, Stoke Hall Stables. 
RoC80s: Were you able to work on more personal projects in the Studio? We see a large number of dioramas and things coming out around that time - what did you work on?

DM: I was also working on my own related projects in my spare time (for my own collection) and had the idea one day to convert a plastic Rhino AFV into one that had been overtaken by Nurgle. I liked the idea of melding a tank with living things and ended up sculpting green stuff maggots bursting from the hull. It threw a few people at the time when they first saw it but I just went with it. 

I loved painting tanks and completed some of the first few Rhino AFV's and the Predator. Khorne and Nurgle were my two favourite Chaos elements and enjoyed painting miniatures for both. At one stage for inspiration, Kev Adams sent Phil Lewis to come and take photos of us all pulling faces and they were used for his inspiration for some of his Chaos sculpts. Each day was different and I enjoyed the variety of the painting and kit making. The first plastic 40k Imperial Guard were released to mixed reception in the painting studio and part plastic miniatures were becoming a regular thing and they were always a challenge to work on. Titans were also slowly lifting off and epic scale was also being developed while I was there. A real challenge was painting all of Jes Goodwin's first Eldar Harlequin miniature's for the boxed set in one bank holiday weekend. It took every ounce of my painting ability and threw it together, but looking back still think they were a bit rushed. 

The back of the RTB6 release. Darren's patterns and ideas here still influence painters to this day, so it is a real pleasure to give credit to him here. 
RoC80s: Did you just say you painted the original Harlequin models over a Bank Holiday weekend?

DM: Yes, they were the Harlequins from the very first boxed set release and they were given to me on the Friday afternoon and I delivered them back painted on the Tuesday morning - much to everyone's shock! My girlfriend at the time was away and I just sat and painted for 12 hours solid each day until they were done. I had a very small brief from Jes Goodwin and I was left, more or less, to my own colour schemes and patterns. I got a bit of a telling off for painting nipples showing through on one of the female eldar's torsos, and I was told to paint them out - but i don't think I ever did. I understand that that box set was one of the biggest sellers they had ever had and in some way I am proud that my painting helped sell them. Jes Goodwin's sculpts were stunning and very advanced for the period in regards of the poses he used. Looking back at it now, it was a lot of work - but i enjoyed it!

RoC80s: You mentioned the 'Studio Vibe' - what was it like to work in?

DM: The working environment was great, but it was something I wasn't really used to as I had worked outdoors in archaeology with very mixed teams. At the time I first started, I wasn't that confident in my painting ability and it showed to start with. I have always been very self critical of my painting and don't like to rush things. The banter took some getting used to and I suppose Sid gave me a bit of a testing time teasing for the first few weeks but it came to a head and I stood my ground and we became great friends after. Seeing Sid leave when he did was one of the worst days, if not the worst, I had in studio as we had become a very good friends by then. 

Some days we could each have a single miniature to work on, but on others we had a batch to get done for deadline and that could be a lot of pressure to get finished on time for a publication date. After a few months, I settled in and enjoyed the small level of chaos and the minor anarchy which was the painting studio at the time. We were a superb team and worked well together and were mostly the same age group, so we all had a similar sense of humour and outlook.

The Golden Demon days we did in the 80s, I always found a bit scary and overwhelming to be honest. I was fairly nervous of people but used to put a front on, I also dreaded painting in the shop or in public in those days. I think I could handle it now if I could see to paint well these days. Bryan was an excellent boss though and so was John Blanche and both put up with my nerves. I met Fraser Gray and he was great bloke, I loved his work and was totally blown away by what he could achieve. He visited the studio a couple of times while I was there.

Darren's Nurgle Rhino makes an appearance in this diorama from the back of White Dwarf 113. 
RoC80s: So how did that vibe change with time?

DM: Things had started to go a bit corporate towards the end of my term to some extent and a studio painting style was emerging which not all of us fully enjoyed or felt totally comfortable with. Before that I think people had been trusted to deliver the goods constantly and they mostly did. If you were not happy with something you ran it by the team and got a honest response and the lads were always superb for that and it was highly valued. I suppose by time I was ready to go I wasn't enjoying it as much as I did.

RoC80s: Were there any other stand out ranges that you worked on that really excited you as a painter?

DM: I enjoyed working on the miniatures for Space Hulk. The first terminator miniatures blew us all away when we first saw the sculpts. Sapce Wolves were my favourite marine Chapter and I as one of the first people to paint the black wolf head on a yellow background. By mid 1989, my life had changed and I was commuting between Lincoln and Nottingham and this was putting a lot of strain and pressure on my work. In a rash moment in 1989, I decided to leave and I suppose at the time I wasn't thinking too clearly but had worked for the company for 18 months and needed a change. Looking back, I have no regrets about working in such a fantastic environment and working with so many good and talented people. I will always remember it fondly and enjoyed my time painting miniatures for one the best miniature companies in the world, at that time.

I also enjoyed working on a slow-burning solo Space Wolf project but I never got around to totally finishing it, what with all the other work I had on the go on top, but it was intended to be a full chapter. Some photos were taken by Phil Lewis and I think one got on to a back cover of White Dwarf. I also enjoyed painting the Marauder Dwarves for Trish and Aly Morrison. This was 'in house painting' but don't think we ever got credit for it as painters. Mike McVey's Empire troops he did for them were mind blowing at the time. Mike was the best painter on the studio floor.
One of my personal favourites of Darren's time at GW. This magnificent ork gargant. 
I am almost certain that this model was in Bryan's cabinet display of his genestealer cult last year at BOYL.
Chaos warriors are iconic in Warhammer. And the painting schemes were never really any more chaotic than this. Another favourite of mine. 


  1. 18 Harlequins, 3 days, 12 hours per day... 2 hours per miniature? Definitely don't reckon I could even do a basic job in that time! Am I the only person to go hunting for visible Eldar nipples now? ;) Great interview as always, thanks for arranging these fascinating snippets!

    1. I looked for nipples on the Harlequins Bryan had one display but found none, though I must say he didn't have all of the eldar models out on the shelf I looked at. The mystery will remain!!

  2. I'm interested how many GW staffers from the golden age were former archaeologists (my own profession). I loved the Harlequin miniatures and concept, I've still got the rules and fluff which was printed in the 40k Compendium.

    1. I was an archaeologist at the very start of my career, then retrained as a teacher. Oldhammerers seem to be one or the other it seems!

  3. Awesome interview, as always. Thank you :D

  4. I actually just started painting my old Harlequin models this month after 20+ years of neglect, so this article is wonderfully timed. I always like the vibrant colors and patterns that Darren selected. The new aesthetic of uniform black models with 1-2 diamond patterned limbs in the same colors seems antithetical to the original concept. I was a fan of this Darren's work for years, so it is great to finally get a chance to 'meet' the man behind the brush.

    1. Are you going to attempt to paint all your models in three days?

    2. Since it has taken nearly 25 years to get to this point, I am going to go with "no" That said, I have finished the first 10.

  5. Orlygg once again thanks for another great interview! Very nostalgic, the FTS figures were the first Pre slota Citadel miniatures I ever purchased. Always liked the Harlequin models and Daren's painting for the box. I've been bitten by the old RT Eldar as of late and might have to pick some of the original Harlequin figures up.

    1. I am glad that you enjoyed the interview Warlord Kcam, you have Darren to thank for that!