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Paul Trapani puts art training into a rather unique pastime: painting miniature soldiers

POPLARVILLE — A local semi-retired design draftsman has found himself a niche, allowing him to bridge the gap between two things he enjoys, history and the fine arts.

Paul Trapani spends several hours a day, when not working at a local Chinese restaurant, bending over a lighted magnifying glass meticulously painting historically accurate, and sometimes highly imaginative, figures for the growing hobby of war gaming.

“I like history and I like art, so, you know, I put the two together,” he says.

Trapani is tapping into a market that provides its enthusiasts an entertainment outlet, as well as a history lesson. He says the “hobby” of war gaming is fairly extensive, although not very visible. A small war gaming convention may have 300-400 people, while larger events such as one in Lancaster, Penn., may have 3,000 attending, Trapani says.

“If you go to a convention you can play with the figures, you can play on board games, you can play the fantasy card games; it’s like a big variety of things.”

Trapani’s workspace is a paint-spattered work bench in a small room at his home. Shelves lined with small jars of water-based acrylic paint are in easy reach. A circular lighted magnifying glass illuminates each figure as Trapani paints. The stems of his fine-tipped artist’s brushes are cut in half to keep them from bumping against the magnifier as he paints. The figures that Trapani paints are made mostly of pewter, normally 25 millimeter in size, although he has done pieces as small as 10mm and as large as 120 mm.

He laughs that he used to be able to work on the 25mm figures without the magnifier.

Behind him as he works is a large piece of plywood in the process of becoming a painted topographical layout of the Antietum battlefield from the American Civil War (ACW). At the 25mm scale, one figurine could represent 10 to 20 or 25 actual soldiers. A “stand” of four figures would then equal a military brigade in Civil War terms. His ACW gaming table, as he calls it, will use 10mm figures, complete with miniature trees, shrubbery and other terrain features.

The uniforms for ACW figures depicting soldiers from certain battles can be more plain, while other uniforms may have pin striping or other details, requiring greater detail work, Trapani says. Those figures have a going rate of $4.50 each, though most he paints are priced $2.50 to $3 each. One set of futuristic soldiers he will be starting soon will be $6.50 each, he says, while another set he’s working on is a Jules Verne-type science fiction model scenario with its crew — “sort of a ‘what if…,” Trapani says.

Normally, figures are purchased by the customer and mailed to Trapani along with instructions for how the uniform should look, although he says he’s not bound by a certain illustration.

“A lot of the paint jobs and color schemes come from me because I try not to make things monotonous — all the same,” while still keeping within the historical accuracy of a period. “Even if they’re in the same uniform I try to make them different, either the skin tones or, all the hair is always different,” Trapani says.

He even does research on animals, having just finished a set that had longhorn steers and another set that contained World War Two German cavalry. Another set in the works will have donkeys and pack mules.

“Any kind of figure you want, you can get,” and says he has also painted Biblical and cavemen figures. “If I wanted some Iraqi’s right now … I can get them.” The only type figures he hasn’t done much of are knights in armor out of the Middle Ages, although he has done figures in chain mail. He says it seems the American Civil War is currently the most popular.

While customers usually provide illustrations and books on how uniforms should look, Trapani has his own small library of books with illustrations.

“I just make sure when I do my research it’s pretty accurate,” he says. “Everything’s a challenge, … That’s what makes it interesting… .”

He says he can do 24 to 30 figures in about a week, depending on size and detail of the figures, and estimates he’s done 2,500 to 3,000 figures in a year’s time. The time needed also depends on the type of figure and the particular war and he can be working on three different sets at a time. He works about three hours at a time although he sometimes spends up to five hours a day. While one figure can be done in an hour or less, Trapani tries to do a set of figures in one-color increments, completing one feature or color in a set before changing colors.

Deadlines for completing an order are usually self-imposed, he says, and deadlines from his customers are “usually way out there,” time-wise. He’s working with about seven clients at the present time and he keeps a calendar of each job.

“I’m not making a killing, a million dollars, but it’s enough to put groceries on the table, it’s enough to get gas in the car,” he says. Currently most of his customers are in Mississippi, with a few in Florida. “Most people, when they get somebody to paint for them, if you’re good, they’ll keep you.”

Trapani was introduced to war gaming six years ago when he made a decision to build military plastic models and had gone to a hobby shop in Hattiesburg. There he met a fellow who was into war gaming and Trapani got invited to a war gaming club that met on Tuesday evenings.

“When I opened the door I saw these big tables, … with the Seven Year’s War and about six guys on each side of the table.”

After a few weeks, Trapani asked about the military figures and learned that someone had painted them for the war gamer. When Trapani learned what he paid the person Trapani remembers saying, “What? You paid to get these painted?”

“Well, click — I did fine arts before …,” Trapani thought, having gone to school in New Orleans in fine arts and engineering design and having worked in that field for 24 years.

He asked if he could take a figure home to paint. When Trapani brought it back the fellow loved it and Trapani began doing more, and from there by word of mouth his business grew. He ultimately went to a few conventions where enthusiasts play war games, and buy and swap pieces and games.

“It’s a popular thing, but it’s not like, it’s not an open kind of thing,” he says. “I call it a closet hobby, … when something big hits town then everybody shows up, then you realize how big it is.”

He says an Internet search to www.theminturespage.com can lead you to a whole world of manufacturers, figurine painters, clubs and groups. On just that one website — and there are many — are miniature figures from practically every conflict mankind has ever been engaged, plus those of the imagination: Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and others.

Trapani says a lot of enthusiasts paint their own figures but many just don’t have the time, which is where he comes in.

“I don’t think there’s ever been a time that I hadn’t had figures in here to paint,” Trapani says. “There’s always an order of two or three … It’s a nice little extra income.”

While war gaming is an “armchair” exercise done in part for entertainment, Trapani says it also serves to keep history alive. He knows it does for him, through the research and painting he does to achieve the realism his customers have come to expect.