Painting Miniatures and the Danger Zone

I’ve been painting miniatures a bit lately, and I’d like to quickly talk about something that people don’t generally talk about when it comes to painting: the actual creative process itself.

In order to paint well you certainly need to know techniques and to practice. But there are other more subtle things about the activity of painting that seem to always be ignored. I’m talking about the sorts of things that any artist needs to learn no matter what creative field they are in, be it music, writing, sculpture, or whatever.

I started thinking about this after I noticed that my process whenever I paint a model is always the same. I think about it for a few days until I have a clear picture in my head of what it will look like finished. I then work backwards in my mind, trying to plan what techniques I know that can create the effects I want. Only then do I start painting.

After this, a strange thing happens. I always get to a stage in the painting where I look at the model and think “that’s it, I’ve ruined it. I’ve screwed it up and it’s not going to look how I planned at all.” I then take a deep breath and decide to try something, anything, that might fix the model. The funny thing is, after I do whatever it is I’ve decided upon, the model is always mysteriously saved. It often ends up better than I planned!  A recent example is my Oniwaban Shinobu Kitsune. I originally envisioned her hair as naturally dark, with deep red highlights. This just didn’t look good, and I switched mid-painting to blonde highlights. The whole model was greatly improved and my confidence was renewed enough to finish.

My partner and my brother and sister are all formally trained artists. Like all gamers, I’m creative too in my amateur fashion. I talked to my brother Chris (his miniature sculpting and Dungeons and Dragons blog is here) about this strange phenomenon and he waved his hand and said “oh yeah, that’s the danger zone. It’s the part of the process where you have to stick to it and trust your skills even though you’re tempted to give up. I have two danger zones. The other one is where you’re done, but you just keep working on it, tinkering away, and then suddenly you’ve over done it and it’s ruined.”

I then talked to my partner and she also told me that one of the most valuable things her formal art training taught her was to know when to stop.

I’m lucky. I think the fact that I’ve been painting models since I was about seven years old has given me a good sense of when to stop. My main danger zone is when the model is at that critical point, and it looks to me like I’m not going to be able to pull off the paint job I envisioned. It’s scary, but it’s also the moment of pure creativity amongst the practical work, when I have to think beyond my original plan to get it to look the way I want.

What I’m trying to get across here is that every successful creative work (however you’d like to define it) strikes a balance between being unfinished and being over-realized. And for me at least, I have to hit a sort of rock bottom where it looks as though I’ve failed before I can push through and succeed in getting the model to look the way I imagined it in my head – or hopefully even better. That’s why I find miniature painting so rewarding. There’s always a challenge to be overcome.

This may all sound a bit pretentious for what is basically painting toy soldiers.  But I think we as model painters shouldn’t sell ourselves short. We face the same creative challenges as any artist and in the end we have to learn the same lessons.

Until next time,


5 thoughts on “Painting Miniatures and the Danger Zone

  1. Porky says:

    Yep. In my experience the same is true in other areas, in writing and layout say, to give the example of another common hobby activity. It may also be the case in any constructive activity, for example bringing together a community or developing a business. It’s natural we can’t plan for every eventuality or visualise every future stage.

    I think the key is wanting what we want in an open and active way and being willing to break through the pain barrier, to dare ourselves to do better. If we’re not on the edge, it might be we’re not at the edge.

    Funky blog too. I like the simple, varied approach. It frees your hands and lets the core ideas shine through.

    • beat ronin says:

      Hi Porky, welcome and thanks for commenting. You have a way with words as always.

      I’m certainly enjoying this much more than I was Warp Signal towards the end. Besides feeling a little hemmed in by the content, I realized that in many ways I was mimicking a traditional journalist when there’s no reason a blogger needs to limit themselves in that fashion. This feels much more natural.

  2. Porky says:

    I know what you mean by being hemmed in. There’s a momentum after a while. Once I realised I’d been away for as long as I had, I didn’t expect to be back until I’d decided on a simpler approach of some form, and I think that approach is still on the way.

  3. Zorcon says:

    Hi Ronin! I was impressed by your comments about your creative process. Reverse engineering the final look in your head before you start a project is a real keen approach. While I am a visually oriented person, details frequently slip by me, so I would not be successful with my approach. What I am really good at is quick “shoot from the hip” solutions. I often go into a project with very little visually mapped out and see what comes out in the end!

    • beat ronin says:

      Hi Zorcon, welcome and thanks for sharing your experience. I think the approach that you have would be very enjoyable so long as you have a flexible enough mindset, and let’s face it enjoyment is the main reason we do this right?

      I do it the way I do because I enjoy the musing and imagining part of the process almost as much as the doing .

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