New York artist and illustrator Eric Elwell’s Fantastic Tanks are slowly digging their treads into the toy photography community, and the results thus far have been, well, fantastic. Born from Elwell’s surreal and fantastical paintings, this new series of 3D-printed, 45mm model tanks brings the artist’s work into the tangible world and provides excellent opportunities for miniature hobbyists, modelers and, of course, toy photographers!

Fantastic Tanks’ first wave features three highly detailed designs, including the bulbous T-01 Puff; the well-fortified T-02 Barn tank; and an almost anthropomorphic T-03 Bryan. Each unique creation offers a very different look from its counterparts, yet together they clearly come from the same creative mind. But how did Fantastic Tanks capture so much attention from the toy photography community? Elwell—who kindly provided both painted and unpainted tanks to three members of our team for this review—explains:

“I saw @sgtbananas [aka Johnny Wu, one of the toy photography elite] on Tested. I fell in love with the whole concept of scenes with practical effects, and wanted to see the tanks in that treatment. So I started following toy photographers, enjoying the content and getting to understand the community.”

The pics that started a growing trend, Photos: Isaiah Takahashi, @blksrs

Elwell eventually connected with toy photo heavyweight and occasional Toy Photographers contributor Isaiah Takahashi, aka @blksrs, who loved the IP, posted some shots (see above) and—proving the influence one great photographer can have on the community—helped spread the Fantastic Tanks gospel. Since then, the line’s unpainted, pre-primed tanks have been selling fast on fantastictanks.com (Puff has already sold out and restocked!), where Elwell also offers Artist Signature Series tanks painted and decorated by him and others, as well as beautiful 8×10-inch illustration prints of his fantasy war machines.

The paintings that inspired the models: Fantastic Tanks art prints, “Barn Tank”and “Death Chef,” by Eric Elwell

Our team members, Joshua Kittleson (@thegreyklerik), Dave DeBaeremaeker (@therealstudiodave) and Oliver Peterson (@oliversees) couldn’t have been more thrilled to get their hands on these little gems and put them in front of their lenses. Each toy photographer had the pleasure of receiving one tank pre-painted by the master himself, Elwell, along with a number of blanks, which they thoroughly enjoyed painting in their individual style.

Read on to see how Joshua, Dave and Oliver injected a bit of their personality and vision into Puff, Bryan and Barn, and set them loose in a variety of environments, snapping photos every step of the way.

Barn aka “Barnabus,” Photo: Dave DeBaeremaeker, @therealstudiodave

Dave DeBaeremaeker (@therealstudiodave)

I’ve got to admit I had no idea what I was getting into when I was offered the chance to check out Fantastic Tanks, but I really enjoyed them. It was refreshing to have a handful of miniatures with no backstory I felt beholden to follow. I also love that they came unpainted. This meant I could add my own personality when I painted them, so they became mine, and not just something I pulled from a box.

Each tank is quirky and has its own identity, which is modeled right into the design. The miniatures appear to be 3D printed, based on the telltale lines visible in the model, but they are really well smoothed out and look incredible. Each of the three tanks I received are full of interesting details.

Dave's Fantastic Tanks
Puff, Bryan and Barn

I did have a bit of an issue with them. Each tank comes in two pieces: the turret and the body. When I first painted my Puff, the paint was a bit sticky and the fit between the two pieces was very tight. When I put the “head” on the body, it fused and became completely stuck. In my attempts to separate them, the “neck” snapped right off. Fiddlesticks!

If this was a pre-painted figure I’d be screwed. However, since I needed to paint it myself, I was able to fix the tank without issue. I used a Dremel to drill out the broken bits. Once done, I pushed a paper straw into the hole and cut it to the right length. For strength I filled the straw with white PVA glue. For extra strength I also put in a small chunk of wood.

Barn, Photo: Dave DeBaeremaeker, @therealstudiodave

After everything dried, I was back in business and proceeded to paint my tanks. I decided to make them all different colours. I made Puff blue, Bryan a light brown, and the Barn (who my son nicknamed Barnabus) using traditional barn colours.

Shooting these tanks is a lot of fun. They have so much character. I tried to capture them in a variety of lighting conditions.

Puff, Photo: Dave DeBaeremaeker, @therealstudiodave
Puff, Photo: Dave DeBaeremaeker, @therealstudiodave

Joshua Kittleson (@thegreyklerik)

I knew from first glance that these tanks would be awesome to shoot. What I did not anticipate is just how small they are. Like, really, really SMALL. This is kinda awesome for portability, but it led to some tough painting for me. 

Despite my being super rusty on figure painting (I was never that great at it anyway), the painting was really fun. The tanks arrive in a primer grey, (note to self, next time get shots before you paint, too) and they are partially shaded, so if you need some guidelines to help you get started, there is that. Also, Fantastic Tanks have fairly generic names and basically no backstories, giving you the freedom to paint them however you see fit! 

Pre-painted Puff, Photo: Joshua Kittleson, @thegreyklerik

Each of us was sent a combination of blanks and pre-painted tanks for review. I received three blanks and one pre-painted T-01 Puff Tank beautifully decorated in “army green” with some excellent weathering and decals.

I painted the T-02 Barn Tank first. I really wanted it to appear barn-like, but also like some bizarre future, sentient/semi-sentient barn. This is the weakest of my paint jobs, and the first toy I have painted in a few years, but I had fun with it.

In my world, I saw this as the Guardian of Hay, in the Order of the Midwestern. Nebraska Division—naturally, since that is where I live. We definitely went too far with our tech, and now humans must combat the tanks to get hay for their livestock. These Barn Tanks self-repair, but we don’t know how or who does it! They just show up with fresh patches, harvest more hay and guard the bales furiously!

Steampunk Barn, Photo: Joshua Kittleson, @thegreyklerik

The third tank I painted tank is the T-03 Bryan. Immediately I wanted to give this one a stormtrooper look, but I resisted that urge in favour of diversifying my photography. Some would say (you know who you are) that there is too much Star Wars stuff out there, so you’re welcome. 

Seeing this as a steampunk type of tank, I went with a fully metallic paint job. I also chose to not weather it—tanks have to be new at some point, right?

Bryan, Photo: Joshua Kittleson, @thegreyklerik

The second model I painted, and possibly my favourite, is the T-01 Puff Tank. I wanted to do something different with this one. It’s winter in my part of the globe, and I always hope for snow. Even if we’ve just had snow, I’m the one who will say, “Nice, but I could do with just a bit more.” 

Then we got hit with 13–14 inches, a top-three record for Lincoln, Nebraska, and I LITERALLY said, “I could do with just a BIT more!” That is when it hit me. I needed a snow tank. 

In the frozen tundra comes a faithful tank painted to look like its unofficial nickname, given by the others—Penguin. Looking for life in this snowy wasteland, the Penguin Tank roves faithfully on patrol!

Side note: My kids insist this tank is Peso from Octonauts. It is NOT. All similarities are purely coincidental. Or at least happened on a subliminal level. 

Puff Penguin, Photo: Joshua Kittleson, @thegreyklerik

Overall, I really like Fantastic Tanks. They are just that, fantastic. They paint well and, even if you are not much of a painter, there are a lot of opportunities to mess around and have fun. The details are excellent—you can see the rivets, tread and grooves where the steel plates would be as it was assembled in the factory. Being blank with basically no info, even in the name, means you can do whatever you want with them. They are 1POA (one point of articulation) with the turret on a swivel, but I see that as being a neutral aspect. I thought they would be statues and it was nice to be wrong on that front! 

I could see some people not liking the 45mm size, which is 1.77 inches. I have a macro lens, so it was not a problem for me. And I did use a 50mm lens for the Penguin shot, so it is doable.

The final point is the cost. There are sponsorship options where you can get swag on the regular, or you can purchase tanks a la carte starting at $17–$22 USD. I think for the quality you are getting, that’s a pretty reasonable price to support a small toy line. 

I give Fantastic Tanks ⅘ Tanks, and I will be buying more!

Pre-painted Bryan of War in winter, Photo: Oliver Peterson, @oliversees

Oliver Peterson (@oliversees)

From the moment I saw Zay’s (@blksrs) first photo of Fantastic Tanks on Instagram, I wanted in, so it was pretty exciting when Josh told us he’d reached out to Eric Elwell and secured us some models to paint and review. I personally received a blank Puff—my favorite—and a wonderfully painted “Bryan of War” (above), sporting an excellent WWII-style fighter plane motif with olive green color, shark mouth and decals featuring French fleur-de-lis heraldry. Elwell really does a beautiful job weathering his pre-painted models and I feel lucky to have one. These Artists Signature Series tanks cost significantly more than their grey brethren ($80–$135 versus $15–$25), but they are truly one-of-a-kind works of art.

With that in mind, the coolest thing about Fantastic Tanks is creating your own artists signature designs. The Puff, which is really fun to paint, has all sorts of interesting contours and rivet-lined sections, making it very easy to establish different areas of color. I went with a pale, army/sea-foam green base color, chocolate brown trim and black treads and cannon to complete my tank, “Puff the Mayhem Dragon,” but that was just the beginning.

Puff the Mayhem Dragon in the snowy field of battle, Photo: Oliver Peterson, @oliversees

These little beasts scream to be weathered, so Puff the Mayhem Dragon also has quite a bit of rust, dirt, chipped paint and exposed metal, giving it a well-worn, battle-hardened look. I really liked what Elwell and his team did with decals on their Artists Signature Series tanks and I managed to dig deep in my basement to find a few options, including multiple sheets of Warhammer 40K Space Marine vehicle and troop waterslide decals, and some tiny temporary tattoos that came with Mattel Create a WWE Superstar sets. (Trade Secret: I regularly use temporary tattoos in paintings on canvas and on custom action figures and vehicles.)

A look at the temporary dragon tattoo and yellow triangle waterslide decal on Puff the Mayhem Dragon.

For this tank, I added a dragon temporary tattoo (they’re made permanent under a thin layer of Elmer’s glue and matte spray varnish) and two 40K waterslide decals—a skull and a yellow triangle. With its dragon adornment, painted on the turret by the commander and his crew, I imagine this tank’s turret can belch out giant flames, bringing death and chaos wherever it goes. It pairs nicely with Elwell’s Bryan of War, so I put them together in a snow-dusted battlefield amid rubble, crumbling concrete bastions and grim, gunmetal skies. My old McFarlane Toys Halo Micro Ops buildings worked perfectly with the look and scale I needed in the background of these shots. I Photoshopped the falling snow, though it would have been easy, albeit messier, to create the same look practically.

Bryan of War and Puff the Mayhem Dragon, Photo: Oliver Peterson, @oliversees

I fully enjoyed painting and shooting Fantastic Tanks, and I’m definitely looking forward to adding more tanks, and perhaps even an art print to my collection. Elwell is just getting started and he has much more on the way. Visit his fantastictanks.com “Meet the Fleet” page to see a whole bunch of other designs he will likely produce, if the line continues to thrive. If that’s not exciting enough, Elwell built six larger, 10cm Puffs using 3D printed and resin cast parts, and he hasn’t ruled out creating more of these bigger models down the road, if there’s enough interest.

Learn more about Fantastic Tanks at fantastictanks.com, and look deeper into Eric Elwell and his amazing art at ericelwellart.com.