Saturday 8 September 2012

Interview With James Van Schaik

Doc Cosmos - private commission by James

Ye Pulp Citizen very recently had the great pleasure of interviewing sculptor (and industry all-rounder!) James Van Schaik. As well as working on Pulp City, James has sculpted extensively for Heroclix, and has had minis produced by Wyrd, Reaper, RAFM among others.

Hi James thanks for your time!
Pup Citizen: I know of you as a freelance sculptor; is that a fair description? Anything you want to add to that? Or have I undersold your interests?
James Van Schaik: No, sounds about right.  I am a freelance sculptor but I do offer other services and advice to companies I work with.  Actually, I have worked as a consultant for gaming businesses many times and while you can say that I work for a company, since I provide a service for them, many times, I am more of a collaborating sculptor and consultant.

PC: So I did undersell your work then! Apologies! I would like to ask about the consultancy later, but for now a lot of your work I associate with the supers/superheroes genre: with your Heroclix work, Pulp City and Chronoscope; are you a big fan of superheroes?
JVS: Yes, huge comic geek.  I bought my first X-Men comic when I was 8 years old.  Grew up reading comics so, yeah, you could say so.  Hahaha.

PC: So do you still read comic books? (From one comic geek to another)
JVS: Not as much as I would like to but I get the occasional one in.  I tend to read graphic novel collections now because I don't have the time to keep up with regular issues.  I do get to all the movies though.

PC: Outside of supers, are there other genres that you find particularly interesting?
JVS: Yeah, there are tons.  I like sci-fi, World War II, historical, fantasy and modern horror as well.  As far as sculpting goes, I like many different genres and usually go by the rule of cool.

A JVS sculpt - Crimson Oni painted by Pulp Citizen
PC: So is it important that your imagination is fired or captured by a genre?
JVS: No but it helps.  It is easier for me because I like all fantasy and sci-fi genres.  What matters sculpt wise is that you like what you are doing; it is not something that is specific to a genre so much as the concept.  If it is well thought out, interesting and you think it is cool, naturally it will turn out better.  If you aren't interested in something that much, the creative juices aren't flowing as well as they should.  As a professional, I try to stick to the art as much as I can whether the creative juices are flowing or not.  It is a skill I have developed over the last 15 years.

PC: And are there any genres that you like but have not yet really worked in?
JVS: World War II is the biggest one.  I have done a few pieces for that genre but not enough in my opinion.  I find there are not as many companies looking for sculptors in the larger scale WWII genre.

PC: Can you explain a little about how the consultancy process [mentioned earlier] works?
JVS: I have done mold making, manufacturing, game design, etc. so I offer all of this knowledge to the gaming companies I work with.  I have a unique perspective since I grew up in the gaming industry.  My dad owns RAFM Miniatures, which is one of the founding miniature companies.

PC: Can you talk us through the creative process you have for sculpting a new mini for a commercial commission? What kinds of stages does the process go through?
JVS: Sure, that is a great question.  I am actually covering that on my blog right now.  I do a lot of behind the scenes things on the blog and will be doing a lot more of it in the near future.  To give you some idea, I basically get the concept from the client.  From there we often (but not always) have a phone conversation, which is important to me because it enables me to be 100% sure of what the client wants.  We discuss the scale, where changes can be made and I discuss how the pose will affect production.  Once I am there, it is simply a matter of sitting down and sculpting. Again, I go into this in much more depth on my blog.  It is a little too hard to describe in one interview, you would have to make it a 10-parter.  Hahaha.

PC: We will have to look out for that in-depth study then! Are there any differences you would briefly highlight in the process with private commissions?
JVS: No, because I treat private commissions with the same amount of professionalism as I would a business client.  I am always making sure that the client gets exactly what they want no matter if it is commercial or private.  Private commissions often have less considerations when it comes to production so the figures themselves are usually more dynamic as there are less restraints.

PC: Do you ever get any kind or ‘artists block or ‘concept block’ when tackling a new project?
JVS: No, not artist block as the client is usually providing me with everything.  You do; however, run into difficulty with staying on task, especially in the summer when my kids are home and not in school.  That is a challenge for most home based businesses, though.

Red Hulk - HeroClix
PC: I had not considered those kinds of time-eating perils.
Moving on, do you have a miniatures sculpt, from any range, that you are most proud of?
Ultimate Hulk - HeroClix
JVS: It would be hard to say.  I could give you a list of ones that I was happy with the end result but I am constantly learning new things and improving my skills, which I think is very important if you want to stay viable as an artist.  Pieces I was proud of five years ago were done at a different skill level than pieces I did yesterday.  I am very critical of my work so I look at a piece and think of ways that I could improve.  I'm proud of a lot of the comic characters that I did for WizKids because the challenge there was to do justice to my favorite comic heroes and the artists that created them.  I received a lot of feedback from the actual artists on how well they were done.  The World's Finest for HeroClix is one of them as it was really validating for me when Ed McGuinness, whose art that piece was based off of, sent me an email saying how great he thought the piece was.  It is always inspiring when your own heroes and role models from when you were a kid contact you and praise you.  Another example of this was when Len Wein sent a similar email about the Explosion set that WizKids did, being a huge Wolverine and X-Men fan, it was a highlight of my career.  Also, the HeroClix fans were always great with making me feel proud of my figures; they have always been supportive with praise over the years.  In the non-gaming industry, I was really proud when I created the Harry Potter figure, Kreacher, for a toy company. It really gave me a lot of knowledge into sculpting to likenesses.

PC: Following that, I have to share an anecdote – at Salute 2010 I approached Kev White [Hasslefree etc.] and asked him if he would be doing any supers minis any time soon. His reply was essentially that with the high standard of your own work, he name-checked you specifically, he could not see himself doing so. Just thought I should share that with you.
JVS: Thanks.

Nuclear Jones - studio paint
PC: Since the [Pulp Citizen] blog is primarily about Pulp City, I was wondering is there a particular PC mini you have sculpted that you have found most satisfying, or is again a case of constantly developing yourself?
JVS: There is the case of always wanting to improve as I said, but Nuke Jones is one of my favorite.  It is one of those figures that had great concept art.  It was so easy and enjoyable to sculpt because it just came together so perfectly.

PC: It is a great sculpt. Can you tell us how you came to be working with Maciej and Pulp Monsters?
JVS: I was taking a break from working with WizKids and decided to look for other companies doing superhero lines.  Pulp Monsters was the only other company around that was doing superheroes so I sent him an email.  My first piece for him was Sister Bedlam and he's been a great client ever since.

PC: If I had to guess, I would have thought you were ‘around’ before Sister Bedlam – that is how strongly I associate your work with the line as a fan! Pulp City is a game with some diverse visual touchstones, and you are probably the most prolific sculptor for Pulp City; do you find the diversity useful? Is it ever a hindrance?
JVS: Diversity is always good because you don't get bored with one thing. There is always something new to work on.  I have run into the lack of diversity with other companies.  You end up working on the same thing or same type of thing over and over again and it hinders your creativity.  Maciej has done a great job of providing the diversity you expect with superheroes.

Diorama by Adam Huenecke
PC: Do you ever look back to things you have sculpted, to see what painters have done with them? Or is a case of “next project, please”?
JVS: I love seeing what painters do with the sculpts I have done.  It is great to see what the fans are doing with my art and what they have done with painting.  I have a picture of a Wyrd set on my Facebook page that is amazing.  The painter, Adam Huenecke, took my figures to the next level.  What made the piece by Adam Huenecke better is that he did it for himself and it is amazing how much time and effort he put into it.  It is one thing to see that level of commitment for box art when they are being paid but it is really great to see people putting that commitment into it simply because my work inspired it in them.  That is what this hobby is all about; providing high quality miniatures for people who want to paint and game with them so I find it exciting to see them using my figures.  I also love getting feedback from fans and have started to really try to connect more with my fans.  I have a few events in the planning stages, which will be posted on my blog, so fans can have the opportunity to ask me about the sculpting process.  In the meantime, I am always open to being sent pictures of figures they have painted and I often check forums to see what people have done.

PC: That is a great insight James, thanks! Following on, do you have any particular influences you would highlight in the arena of miniatures sculpting?
JVS: Yeah, my influences go back to the old school sculptors from Ral Partha.  I trained with them back when I started working with Wizkids so I learned a lot from them.  Stephen Koo, who was a staff sculptor at RAFM when I was growing up, got me started in sculpting.  From there, Sandy Garrity was one of the first professional sculptors who reached out and taught me a lot.  This was back before there were tutorials and sculpting was a very closed profession.  The staff sculptors at the Cincinnati studio, who I apprenticed with, really helped me become a full time sculptor.  They were James Carter, Dave Summer, Jeff Grace, Steve Saunders and Jeff Willhelm.  Tommy Meier is probably the top of my list for all-time best miniature sculptors out there.  I am always looking at his work and striving to reach that level of ability.

PC: An impressive list of talents there. What about influences outside of the gaming/miniatures world?
JVS: There are tons. Bernini [Italian Baroque sculptor and architect – PC] for one is absolutely amazing.  Burne Hogarth [a cartoonist who illustrated Tarzan strips and wrote Dynamic Anatomy – PC] also heavily influences my anatomy and the way I do drapery.  Randy Bowen [contemporary commercial sculptor – PC] is another influential sculptor that has influenced me.  Many of the comic artists have influenced my work, of course;  Jim Lee, Ed McGuinness, Leinil Francis Yu, and many others from the superhero genre.  My interest in historical and WWII was inspired and influenced by a close family friend who fought in Vietnam.  I could on but it would take a while.

PC: I appreciate the time taken to answer the question. Any as-yet unmet ambitions in the field of sculpting for you?
JVS: Yes, there are many.  I would love to work on larger pieces and on pieces for toy companies.  I would love to branch out and do more pieces for movies.  It is a really good question because one thing I have realized is that sometimes, you are not going to get paid to do a subject matter that you want to do.  One of these was that I had an ambition to work for Games Workshop. I had the opportunity to interview with them and do a sample piece but in the end, the company was not the right fit for me.  Having that experience helped me realize that in order to cross those ambitions or dream jobs off the bucket list, I would need to do things on my own as a personal project.  That is the main reason why I am focusing on my blog.  I am going to be working on my dream pieces, such as possibly doing a Fastball Special with Wolverine, which I have wanted to do for years. Not for resale or to make a profit but because I want to see what I can do with the concept. The pieces that I finish, and feature on my blog, may be sitting on my shelf for years or they may go to a lucky fan as a prize.  Who knows.  In addition, I have decided it is time to really branch out into new mediums with sculpting.  I have always been a traditional sculptor, and will continue to offer traditional sculpting services to clients, but I am also learning digital sculpting right now and will be offering that additional sculpting in the near future.  Again, I will be looking at the difference between the two on my blog in the upcoming months.

Sovereign sculpt by JVS - painted by Pulp Citizen
PC: A couple of final questions, if I may. Do you paint miniatures or play skirmish games yourself? And what miniatures or games are you involved in?
JVS: Yeah, I do. I love to paint miniatures and play games but I don't get as much time as I would like.  I have several 40K armies (and most of them have been painted) and I play WWII (Warhammer WWII) about once a month.  We use a home grown version of 40K, which works really well.  Since I have been in the gaming industry for so long and have created several game systems for RAFM, I make up the occasional rule system for certain genres, especially with zombie games.

PC: A hobbyist of many interests then! Finally, in addition to the blog project(s) are there any upcoming projects you would like to highlight, James?
JVS: There are many I would love to highlight but I have NDA's to consider.  I am working with a bunch of great new companies that have exciting products.  As they release the projects, I will be updating my blog so I don't ruin the companies' surprise.  I have realized over the last few years that I have worked behind the scenes with helping other companies develop their brand.  It has been great and I will continue working in this capacity but I am also taking the time to develop my relationships with the fans who have followed me from company to company.  I am also working on expanding the services that I offer companies with consulting and with the digital sculpting.    Another part of my blog is to help aspiring artists and maybe even start training an apprentice.  There are a number of things like that on the horizon but right now they are at the think tank stage so people will have to watch and see where I am going over the next few months.

PC: Thank you very much for your time James, it has been a pleasure!

Some links for James and his work: 

James' blog (where he plans to reveal some tutorials in the future)




  1. A great insight into the work, skills and experiences of an amazing sculptor

  2. Gorgeous stuff. You know, James, 15mm scale (1-100th) could always use a few all-purpose Super sculpts if you're bored.



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