When Bob Blum laughingly calls himself “the artist formerly known as Chef Bob,” he’s only half-joking.
While some call the painting of miniature figures a hobby, Blum unapologetically calls it art.
Having retired after turning 65 last year, Blum practiced his culinary artistry at a number of local restaurants, most recently at the Hilton Capitol Center. But long before hanging up the spatula, he picked up paint brushes — often very small, fine brushes — to work on miniature sculptures. He has won national and regional awards, but is in awe of those who are at the top of this artistic niche.
“It’s art,” he said. “Absolutely.”
For Blum, it began in childhood with model airplanes, but that faded when he reached adulthood. It wasn’t until he was married and had a young son that this pastime found him again. While on vacation in Biloxi, Mississippi, he and his son left a dinosaur exhibit in a mall when they passed a hobby shop and walked in. He pulled a box off the shelf called “Battle of Waterloo” and remembered having written a paper on that subject while in school. Opening it, the toy soldiers reminded him of ones he had seen at Little Wars, a war gaming shop that then was located near the restaurant where he worked.
Blum never got into the war gaming, but when someone at the Hobby Town shop told him about local shows in which people competed for the best paintings of these small figures, he checked it out.
“I was just scratching the surface of something I didn’t even know existed,” he said. “I got hooked.”
So much so that when he and his wife, Tamra, were house hunting in 1996, a big selling point turned out to be the sewing room the owner had added on the back of the house. The built-in sewing cabinet gave him a lot more room to work than the table he’d been using in the condominium where they lived.
“I walked in here and said, ‘Where do I sign?’” Blum said. “It’s perfect.”
Now, it’s a place for an array of paints, paint brushes and model pieces that range from soldiers from various points in history to fantasy creatures drawn from mythology and science fiction.
Blum started with the historical pieces, which required learning a lot about their backgrounds. Competitive military miniatures can’t be colored at the artist’s whim. Historical authenticity is a must, as well as an eye for meticulous detail.
“You can spend hundreds and hundreds of dollars on books,” he said, showing a stack of them behind where he sits to paint, each showing what old military uniforms actually looked like.
Artists have created a variety of models that represent an array of these military figures, but it’s the artist’s job to bring them to vivid life. It takes a steady hand, patience and an eye for the exact color. There are paints that are manufactured for specific military eras, but if Blum doesn’t think the color is right, he’ll mix paint until he gets the color he wants.
Then, there are the details that, depending on the size of the model, can be extremely small. Even on larger models, there are opportunities to apply the tiniest brush stroke that adds authenticity. Cheaper brushes are sufficient for applying a base coat, and more expensive ones for detail, such as the veins in the white of a werewolf’s eye. Sometimes, he improvises.
“I’ll even take one that’s a little worn, start taking it apart, hair by hair, nicking it off until I have just a few hairs left,” he said. “It’s hard to get even a drop of paint on there. That’s too much. You’ve got to get, like, a quarter of a drop, if that makes any sense.”
As much as he enjoys it, Blum tries not to take himself too seriously. He remembers buying a rare model from a friend and describing what he was looking for as he examined the model for possible flaws.
“He looked at me and said, ‘Damn, Bob, you know a lot about this stuff, don’t you?’” Blum said. “That’s when it dawned on me: ‘Uh, oh, I’ve turned to the nerd side.’”