Friday 26 August 2016

Citadel Colour: An Interview with Mike McVey

Mike McVey's painting inspired my own meagre efforts more than anyone else. It was his work that I poured over and failed to emulate through the later part of the 1980s and beyond. We forget now, in this age of communications technology, just how limited our source material was back then. You had White Dwarf and the supplements that came with the games you bought. That was pretty much it!

And there was the waiting...

The waiting for the month to turn, so I could make the mile long trip to the newsagents and pick up the next issue of White Dwarf. I had a ritual. I wouldn't open the magazine until I got home and when I did, my first port of call was 'Eavy Metal and Mike McVey's painted models.

So you can imagine, dear readers, that Mr McVey was a the top of my list of individuals to interview and he was one of the very first personalities that I approached. Way back then, Mike ensured me that he would, one day, get back to me and I am very pleased to say that he finally has.

Mike's work dominated the final 'Fantasy Miniatures' hardback book in 1990, as this page illustrates.

RoC80s: How did its all start? Eighteen is a very young age to begin anything professionally, so how did you end up working for GW as part of the 'Eavy Metal team?

MMc: I was very young, and still living at home at the time. It was an advert in White Dwarf that started it all - I can't remember what issue (I really should go back and check…) but it was later in 1986. I painted some miniatures especially for it, and sent them off to the Studio. To my complete amazement I got a letter back asking me to come to Nottingham for an interview - that was all the prompting I needed to leave home and move close to Nottingham. My sister was at college in Loughborough at the time, so I moved in with her before the interview. The interview itself was pretty terrifying - I spent all my youth pouring over the pages of WD, and all of a sudden I was surrounded by the people who made it. Sitting there in John Blanche's office, with his paintings on the walls and his miniatures on the shelves. The thing I remember the most clearly was his Chaos Minotaur conversion - the one with Mona Lisa on the banner. I had stared at that for hours in the pages of WD, and here I was in the presence of the real thing… I also remember the sculpting studio - Nick Bibby, Jes Goodwin, Bob Naismith, and Ali and Trish Morrison - all sitting round laughing and joking, I thought it was the coolest thing I had ever seen. I was pretty wet behind the ears back then!

The interview didn't go great - I was very young and inexperienced, and was more than a little tongue tied talking to John - so I was pretty pleased when the whole thing was over.

I received a letter about a week later, informing me I hadn’t got the job - but that Bryan would like to talk to me about the possibility of doing some freelance work. I duly rang him up and he told me he'd keep me on file in the event of any work being available. So there I was living in Loughborough, and not working for GW…

The next thing I did was apply for a mould making job over at the factory in Eastwood - I figured if I got in there, it might be easier to transfer across to the studio (as my good friend Richard Wright eventually did, though I had no idea at the time). So I got several busses and trains to travel from Loughborough to Eastwood and had an interview with Steve Bruce and John Ellard (I think…) - who told me they couldn't employ me living so far away…

I had been in Loughborough for about two months (so that would be April 1987), when out of the blue I got a call from John Blanche asking if I would be interested in two weeks work in the studio. They had a big project coming up (which turned out to be Rogue Trader), and needed some help with it. I jumped at the chance, and that two weeks turned into 13 years…

Mike McVey has always stood out from the crowd.
RoC80s: You ended up running the painting team. During your time with the company, how did the way miniature painting was organised change?

MMc: Everything about the way the company worked has changed out of all recognition since those early days. John ran the art department when I joined, and that included the figure painting studio. Back then there was Colin Dixon (who was the first full time painter), Sid (who got the job I didn't), and myself. Really it was just Sid and I doing the painting though - Colin was mainly doing artwork, and only painted miniatures when there was a crunch on. Then there was Dave Andrews and Tony Ackland drawing and painting. I remember my first day in the Studio so clearly - walking into that room with Sid, Colin, Dave and Tony - all bearded with long hair, surrounded with cigarette smoke - and there I was a very fresh faced 18 year old. I was scared out out of my wits! I don't think I spoke a single work for about 2 weeks...

I was employed on the understanding that I would be able to paint five miniatures a day - but some days I painted far more. I remember painting the units for the first plastic regiments box set - where you got 20 each of several different Warhammer races. Most of those were painted in a single day for a unit of 20. Learning to paint at that speed, taught me a huge amount about economy of painting, and it really helped when I slowed down and spent more time on individual miniatures.

The miniature painting and art room was a pretty chaotic place - but we did get a lot done. Everyone went to the pub most lunch times (at least it seemed like that looking back), so the afternoons were definitely more 'relaxed'. I can't remember exactly how things were organised - but John would dole out the work and give us briefs for colour schemes. These were pretty open and we had a lot of freedom as to how to paint things - which was great.

The deadline was always - 'soon as you can'.

There was never any teaching of how to do things, but John would critique work and have us make changes when needed. I was keen as mustard though - this was my dream job and I wasn't going to screw it up.

As time went on over the years, the whole company got more organised, and that was certainly true for miniature painting. I was pretty much running it (under Phil Lewis) just before we moved to the new studio on Castle Boulevard - I think there were 5-6 of us at that point. Myself, Tim Prow, Dale Hurst, Ivan Bartlet and Andy Craig - I think that was everyone. Only Tim and I made it to the new studio though - the others were 'let go'. The whole studio move was a brutal experience, and lots of people didn’t make it - as far as I remember, they only found out a day or so before we moved.

When we got into the new place, we started re-building the team and I ran it properly for a couple of years. Or as properly as I knew how - considering I had no training in management what so ever. It was different place by then - much more organised and formal. We worked in an open plan office, so we weren't hidden away like we were in the original studio - that place was like a rabbit warren and you got get away with all sorts of 'high-jinks'!

These miniatures, and their famous paintjobs, must has launched the painting exploits of millions of gamers!
RoC80s: You were (and indeed still are) rightly famous for your gorgeous blended painting style. How did you develop this? Did you arrive at GW with the skill or did it develop through inspiration or through training?

MMc: When I got to GW, I was pretty competent painter - but I looked at the work of people like JB and Colin, and thought I would never get anywhere close to their level. It's amazing how fast you improve in that environment though - painting eight hours a day, surrounded with like-minded creative people. You absorb information by osmosis. I never remember much in the way of training - you would look at the way someone else did something, and work out how they did it. Everyone was very open with information, but there wasn't the culture of learning and forensic direction there is with miniature painting these days. It was very young hobby in a lot of ways. People had been painting miniatures for years for wargaming, but it was pretty basic stuff - they never focused on quality in the way we did. That was for larger scale painting.

As for blending - it was something that John showed me with enamels, using a second brush to thin the edge of a colour to create the look of a smooth blend. I just transferred that to painting with acrylics. If I remember it right, the fist place I did that was on the original Imperial Guard Sentinel, which I painted blue. I remember Bryan complaining that it wasn't highlighted, as it was bit on the subtle side!

Once I'd mastered that technique, everything else fell onto place though - it was the cornerstone of my painting. It wasn't until I got to spend a bit longer on the miniatures that I felt comfortable with it though - the first time that happened was probably painting the Eldar - that’s when I thought my paining really ‘clicked’, on the aspect warrior miniatures especially, but also on some of the Harlequins.  I was in the fortunate position of being my own boss with painting - so I could spend the time I needed to on miniatures - that allows me to really perfect that technique, and in the end I could produce multi-layered, smooth blends very quickly. 

The original Citadel Colour range.
RoC80s: According to our research, you were credited in helping designing the very well loved original Citadel Colour Range (Citadel Colour, Creature Paint Set, Monster Paint Set etc...), is this the case? If so, what was the process of development?

MMc: Not quite. The original Citadel Colour paints were released before my time at GW - round about 1985 I think. At that time I was painting with Humbrol Enamels, so switching to acrylics was a revelation. No more smell or long drying times. I worked a lot on the first expansion to the range - the inks, washes and metallics - and re-worked a lot of the colours to be a more comprehensive spectrum. That would be early nineties I think - maybe late eighties. From that point on, I was responsible for the entire paint range design. I spent quite a lot of time in the paint labs of several different companies - developing new formulations and colours. I designed about five ranges while I was there - but only two of them saw the light of day. One was a re-design of the entire original range, and the next was when production switched to a new supplier.

RoC80s: Andy Craig's amusing tales of life in the studio have been very popular, do you have any amusing stories or memorable moments to share?

MMc: God - where do I start! I pretty much grew up working at GW, so a lot of my formative memories are linked to that place. When I think of amusing stories, I mainly think of Sid though - he was a pretty hilarious guy.

I remember there was a youth training office above the painting room and he used to terrorise the trainees. They had to walk past our window pretty regularly - we were on the first (second for any Americans reading) floor and they had to walk out under us to the bins at the back of the building. He used to bombard them with anything he could get his hands on - and had various projectile guns to shoot them with. He also used to chase them round the corridors when he met them - and it culminated with the manager taking him to task outside our door, and ending up in a fist fight with him!

Then there was the occasion he built the 'first 40K tank' - which consisted of a large cardboard box, that had holes for his head, arms and legs - he just happened to be taking that for it’s first test drive round the floor of the figure painting room, when Tom Kirby walked in with some important guests...

Sid was never a great painter, but he was endlessly entertaining to work with!

Then there was the time John Blanche disappeared into the spray room to varnish a new drawing, and used black undercoat by mistake.

There are so many more stories involving different members of the GW studio, but many of them are not really repeatable…

The painting room was a bit separated from the rest of the studio, so in some ways we were a bit of a law unto ourselves, especially for the first year or so and it was Colin, Dave, Sid, Tony and me. It was a great place to work.

RoC80s: Who were your inspirations when it came to miniature painting? Who are they now?

MMc: Without any doubt, the largest influence on me was John Blanche. Back in the early days he was just on a different planet to everyone else (and some think he still is), the work he was creating was streets ahead of what anyone else was doing. Colin Dixon was a close second though, as his was the work that directly proceeded me in White Dwarf and in products. I still distinctly remember looking at his work when I started and thinking I’d never be that good. What you have to remember back then though, is that the only good painting you saw was on the pages of White Dwarf, or in the Journals, there was no internet. I grew up in the Lake District, so there were no game shops with display cabinets either. Getting White Dwarf Magazine and the Journals was huge for a budding painter like me - and I used to devour every scrap of information I could. A few of the designers were good painters too - Aly Morrison and Nick Bibby in particular. But, for sure - John was The Man, without him I don’t think miniature painting would have taken off in the way it did.

These days I don’t keep up with the painting scene like I used too - it’s just too big. The standard is incredible, and the amount of information out there for painters is just never ending - which is such a good thing. As a learning environment for painters, it’s a fantastic time to be in the hobby.

RoC80s: Fraser Grey has become somewhat of a legend among enthusiasts. What was your opinion of his work and what are your memories of him?

MMc: Fraser was such a lovely guy, and great painter too. What amazed me most was how clean he could get the colours with enamels - I painted with them before acrylics and always hated them, but I never had the patience he did. He put a lot of time into those miniatures, and it showed. I always looked forward to his visits to the studio, and seeing what he’d been working on.

A classic '80s Jes Goodwin Ogre hiding in one of Mike's '90s dioramas.
RoC80s: You produced many dioramas during the 90s, many of which are still on display. Why did you produce so many of these? Was it direction from management or something you just wanted to do?

MMc: It was my job for over a year - maybe 18 months, and I still count it as the most fun I have had in my entire career. I got pretty burned-out running the painting team, and really wanted to get back to creating, rather than managing. I had total free range to do what I wanted, I just looked at what projects were upcoming (like army books for Lizardmen, Dark Angels, Wood Elves, etc) and do a diorama based on that subject. It was fantastic!

I could make them whatever size I wanted, so really I could let my imagination run riot. The most challenging thing was to produce dioramas that would work well in front of the camera - it’s no good making something that doesn’t reproduce well on the pages of a magazine or book. As a matter of fact - that was pretty much how I lived my painting life, developing a painting style that reproduced well.

The dioramas were a lot of work though - the Warhammer Quest one was several months work, and I remember being completely sick of the sight of it by the end. I made a decision at the start that I was going to use forced perspective to give the illusion of depth - and I regretted it every day after that, it was so much extra work!

One of Mike McVey's early Rogue Trader dioramas.
RoC80s: Later, you moved into sculpting models. Was this something that you always wanted to do? How did you train?

MMc: I was quite happy as a miniature painter, but I reached the top of what they were prepared to pay me (which was very little!) - so they suggested I move into sculpting instead. It was a really hard decision for me - I spent my whole working life painting, and was very proud of what I’d achieved, so it was tough to give that all up and start from scratch.

There was a trainee sculptor program at GW, but it was a little haphazard - and really I was pushed into making production miniatures before I was ready. I learned a lot from Gary Morely, but it wasn’t until I started sharing an office with Jes and Brian Nelson that I found my feet a bit and started producing models I was proud of. The only ones I actually like are the Eldar miniatures I sculpted just before I left.

RoC80s: After leaving GW, you did a wide range of painting work for other companies (including a relocation to the US), was this a positive experience?

MMc: That’s not quite what happened. I left GW to move to Seattle in the US and work for Wizards of the Coast. They were setting up a miniatures division and wanted people with experience to staff it. I was employed as the lead studio sculptor, but was quickly made the Art Director. The first project we worked on was Chainmail, but it was fairly disastrous - WotC didn’t really understand the miniatures market and we were never properly supported by the upper management of the company. That ended fairly badly with one of the round of redundancies that were sweeping the company at the time - and they decided that pre-painted plastics were more their thing (which was probably the case). I art directed the D&D and Star Wars miniatures lines, but it really wasn’t what I wanted to do.

I’d become very disillusioned with working at WotC, and got involved with Privateer Press very early in their development. The three guys who set it up commissioned me to make a promo miniature of a Steamjack (a steam powered robot) from their D20 adventures. They really loved it and agreed to make me a partner in the company, and we started making Warmachine. That’s far too long a story to write here - but it taught me a valuable lesson of only working with people I liked in future!

RoC80s: Eventually you set up Studio McVey. Was this always an ambition of yours? How did you go about creating the company and designing the products?

MMc: Ali (my wife) and I, set up Studio McVey when we moved back to the UK in 2007. It was really a response to working on defined miniature ranges for the past few years - you just get a little tired of making miniatures for the same world/setting. I wanted to create a range where we could make the miniatures we really wanted to paint - and not have any restrictions on style, setting or genre. It was really fun, and I think that range we created was really solid.

The down-side was that the resin collectors pieces only really appealed to painters - and when it comes down to it, most of the people who are buying miniatures were gamers. That lead me to starting the Sedition Wars sci-fi line - and that was really enjoyable, creating a whole setting from scratch. It was a pretty steep learning curve though - working on a game and miniatures line as a one-man company (Ali was concentrating on her illustration work by that time) is a HUGE amount or work, especially when it becomes very successful in a short amount on time…

Horus vs the Emperor
RoC80s: Probably the hardest question for any artist. Which painted model do you think best defines your time at GW and why?

MMc: For single miniatures, I guess that would be The Green Knight, though Tyrion and Teclis brought in a whole new type of miniature - so they would run it a close second. The Green Knight was an important piece for me - it was the first production miniature Michael Perry sculpted after he lost his right hand, so it had great significance to all of us in the studio. I can still clearly remember painting it now, and it must be more that 20 years ago. Mark Gibbons produced the original illustration for it, but that was black and white - so I had to capture the feel of that in colour.

Without any doubt though - the work I get asked about more than anything else are the dioramas - and The Emperor and Horus in particular. I guess they are also the thing that I enjoyed working on the most, and put most of myself into. It’s really great they are still on display at the GW museum too - I’m very proud of that.

Tyrion and Teclis

RoC80s: What's next for Mike McVey?

MMc: Studio McVey is now effectively a miniatures design studio - we are partnered with Guillotine Games making miniatures for board game projects. We launched Blood Rage and The Others on Kickstarter last year, and we’re currently working on an Oriental themed game and HATE - based on Adrian Smith’s graphic novel. I’ve been working with Adrian again for the last couple of years - he’s the sole artist on Blood Rage and did 90% of there art for The Others. It’s really great to be in the same creative team as him again - he’s certainly one of the best artists I have ever worked with. The depth of his imagination is staggering.

I’m not painting or sculpting any more - my eyes just aren’t capable of that level of fine detail any more, but I still get a huge kick out of the creation process - and turning fantastic art into amazing miniatures. I still love it as much now as I did when I started at GW in 1987.

As always, I would like to thank Mike McVey for his contribution to Realm of Chaos 80s and taking us back to the Golden Age of Games Workshop. Years in the making, this interview really does go to show that good things come to those who wait!



  1. That's a fascinating read. Thanks both!

  2. Great interview. One thing I've always been curious about with these top-level painters though, and that's whether they ever really played many games with the toy soldiers they so lovingly turned into works of art.

    1. Tim Prow has said that many of them were big fans of the games, as it was the games that got them all painting in the first place. I reckon they must have had some cracking lunch hours back in the 1980s!

    2. Mike McVey had his Wood Elf army featured in White Dwarf at some point. As I recall, he even took part in a published Battle Report with it, as part of a big multi-player game.

      However, I read somewhere that he wasn't all that much of a gamer though... it was painting that was his main focus. The army was something he felt he needed to do, considering where he worked, although I suspect he derived some enjoyment from painting those beautiful classic Jes Goodwin sculpts.

  3. A great depth interview. Thanks to both of you!

  4. Great read Orlygg. Mike was something very different when his work started appearing in the White Dwarf. His work was clearly of a new standard that changed the level of painting I expected to see forever.

    1. His work back then still stands out, for me at least, today. Simple, bright colours and beautifully accomplished blending. For me, modern painting techniques (like modern art) seems over wrought. Simplicity is beauty.

  5. Another fantastic interview! I'm so glad we get this living history. It's a real service to the hobby - so thanks Orlygg (and Mike!).
    I didn't realize that MM was involved in the production of Blood Rage. I just played that for the first time a few weeks ago. It is a magnificent boardgame and I highly recommend it. As you can imagine, the miniatures for it are brilliant.

    1. I had not heard of Blood rage before and you rave review had piqued my interest further. Thanks.

  6. Great interview. Love the emperor and horus diorama. Painted so many terminators trying to recreate that scene and failed. But loved it all the same

    1. It is based on the illustration from Lost and the Damned, it is not?

  7. Great interview, it's a shame WotC treated the chainmail line so badly, as some of the figures Mike and his coworkers produced for it are amazing, I own a few in my collection.

    1. Same old story. A 'games' company not really understanding toy soldiers. Not the first time, and sadly not the last.

  8. Merci pour cette super interview de Mike ! J'ai toujours été fan de son travail et appréciais ses talents dans les premiers white dwarf français...vive le style old school!

  9. Nice interview, I love any stories from the old design studio, it always sounds like an outlaw biker gang hangout.

  10. Good interview. I really hated Mike's early models, and now I know why they were awful. Poor chap, seems like the GW management didn't really treat him that well.

    1. His early SCULPTS I mean... his painting has always been top notch.

  11. Everything I know about painting miniatures I copied off Mike McVey!

    That might be a tad hyperbolic, but my painting style is the result of crudely trying to replicate Mike's work.


  12. Great interview! Mike was, and remains, the single biggest influence on the development of my painting style.

  13. Another good read, one of my enduring early memories of the hobby is the Horus/Emperor diorama which turned me firmly to Chaos.

    1. Funny how no-one ever felt sorry for the Emperor!

  14. Thanks very much for putting this together, Orlyyg, and thanks very much to Mike for giving us all this fascinating read. Mike's painting has inspired and influenced my own painting more than any other painter in existence- I will never forget seeing the Green Knight in the pages of WD for the first time. I have probably tried (and failed) to emulate his Teclis paintjob a half dozen times at this point, and there's another one sitting on my desk right this moment- maybe this time will be different. I am very, very pleased to have been given this opportunity to learn more about Mike's time at the Studio, so thanks so much again!

    1. Thank you for reading and enjoying the post.

  15. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  16. Mike mentions the Warhammer Quest diorama and the Green Knight miniature, but there are no images to go with them; can anyone point to where these can be found?

    1. I did look, but I couldn't find an image that was definitely Mike's work.

    2. green knight -

      WHQ diorama -

    3. I don't think that Green Knight is Mike's original work but a later versions by someone else. Though I could be wrong. Anyone know for sure?

  17. Thanks for the great interview!

    It was awesome to read the bit about Mike's reaction to seeing John Blanche's Minotaur conversion in the flesh. I had actually written an article about that very model, but had no idea how much of an influence it was on Mike McVey!!

    That might explain a good many things... such as how pervasive the red ogre face is, and the checker patterns being so strongly associated with fantasy paintjobs.

    There was a short time period where Mike McVey and his wife Ali were doing commission paintjobs. My biggest regret was that I didn't have the spare money at the time to get a piece done by one (or both) of them... and it sounds like I won't ever have a chance to again. Sigh.

  18. This was the one I've been waiting for - fascinating stuff! Huge thanks to you both for taking the time.

  19. According to the WD issue when she was released, Repanse de Lyonesse was the first model he sculpted after losing his hand. I wonder which one it is.

  20. Thanks for crediting Mike with the diorama with the ogre in...I was admiring it at WHW recently and wondered who made it ..

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