Painting Miniatures and the Cult of Difficulty

Continuing in the vein of my last post, I recently saw someone online showing some miniatures in progress.  They had done some excellent highlighting work to create the effect of shiny black leather/PVC uniforms, and were having trouble getting the model’s helmet to match.  One commentator said “you could cheat and use gloss varnish.”

This is a perfect illustration of what I call the Cult of Difficulty in miniature painting.  There seems to be an unspoken community norm that the more time and effort it takes you to create an effect, the more worthy of praise your work is and the “better” you are as a model painter.  There seems to be little comprehension of the fact that different effects create different visual feels.  And that is what is most important about which method you use – not how hard it is, or how much practice it takes to do it.

I mentioned in another post that since model painting is a hobby, most people who do it are not trained or professional artists.  This has an effect on community norms.  I think this Cult of Difficulty is just an instance of the common sentiment expressed by non-artists when they see a work of art that looks like it was made easily: “I could do that.”  With the silent implication that therefore it is not worthy of much respect or praise.

Trained and professional artists know that the right response to “I could do that” is “yeah, but you didn’t.  And now you can’t, without being derivative.”  This is because it  doesn’t matter how an artwork was created.  All that matters is that it is original and looks good.

Now personally I wouldn’t advise gloss varnish for the model I mentioned at the start of this post.  But not because it’s somehow “cheating.” I wouldn’t use gloss varnish because the rest of the model has been painted in a representational rather than a realistic style, and it would look odd and spoil the effect.  If you want something to look like glossy black paint the best thing to use is glossy black paint.  But if you want to paint a picture of glossy black paint, then you have to approach it in a whole different way.

Many people in our community seem unaware that there are different, equally valid ways to go when painting a model, choices that affect which tools and techniques you are better off using.  It seems completely arbitrary to me which ways the community applauds and which ways they sniff at as cheap tricks, except for one thing: all the ways in the former category take ages to do or require a great deal of practice or a natural aptitude.

That doesn’t mean they are better.  Perhaps you prefer the look created by what I call the painterly style, and that’s fair enough.  But how hard something is to make is not a good way to judge art, at all.

Next time I’ll write a little about a few of the basic aesthetic approaches I can see in use in fantasy and sci-fi miniature painting.

Thanks for reading and feel free to comment,


8 thoughts on “Painting Miniatures and the Cult of Difficulty

  1. Very legitimate points!! I actually had someone the other day refer to dry brushing as a technique for amateur miniatures painters – which was quickly rebutted by a very experienced painter with ‘every technique, even the most simple can be utilised for effect and practiced and improved’. So I very much agree with all of the above!

    • beat ronin says:

      Hi there, sorry it took me so long to reply 🙂

      I’m glad you agree, and I’m really glad to hear of other people who share this view.

      Dry-brushing is actually really really hard to do well I think – I don’t normally have the patience to do it properly! You need to make sure there’s only the teeniest amount of paint on the brush and you have to brush it over slowly and light as a feather, otherwise it looks chunky. It might be easy to do, but it’s not easy to do well, and it can create the most subtle highlights. A friend of mine highlights his 40k Titans with good drybrushing, it’s very subtle.

  2. Minitrol says:

    Kia ora James I somehow missed you started up a new blog yay me!

    Backdated reading mission about to commence. Anyway I saw you commenting on HOP about elections and just wondered if you subscribed to Clarke and Dawes?


    On topic there very much is a cult of difficulty. Is that just red? You know you could wetblend orange into it then fade out some bone and glaze the red back? Uhm yeah I could but I need to do four loads of washing and prepare lunches for my goblins and I want to enjoy this process and not stab myself with my paint brush…

    But yet when I take a shortcut I still think of it as cheating!! I had good success with some dipping tests so why don’t I have a finished army? I think I should do better that’s why.

    Ka kite ano

    • beat ronin says:

      Hey @Minitrol! Glad you found me 🙂 And I am kicking myself that I didn’t preference Beekeepers for Tall Buildings higher on the ballot sheet. I’m sure they were on there somewhere…

      You actually touched on something else that bugs me about the culture of miniature painting, and that’s recipes. I don’t have a problem with it in princilpe of course, we should share our knowledge with one another generally as human beings, in all areas. But for some reason it bugs me when people prattle on with these seventeen-step colour recipes so that you can exactly copy the effect they produced. I think it bugs me because if you want to be a better painter, you’re better off experimenting yourself (cappucino_gaming’s blog is a good example – that’s what she does), rather than asking Giraldez what precise steps he followed to paint William Wallace’s hair. If you’re going to paint, just get in there and do it, right?

  3. Von says:

    Confession: I occasionally feel guilty about offering my services as a commission painter, since I don’t paint red in fourteen layers over a week of painstaking moments. I paint red in four layers at the absolute most, less if I’m doing more than one model at a time, and I get things done in a day.

    For some reason, though, when there’s money or prizes on the line, I always feel like I don’t deserve ’em.

    • beat ronin says:

      @Von I think if you can produce a red in four layers that looks just as good as one that took fourteen then you deserve prizes all the more in my book. Hey I meant to ask, how do you feel about assembling models for money? I hate putting the little buggers together, and might be willing to pay someone to do it for me…

      • Von says:

        I feel pretty positive about it! The only small concern I have is the shipping distance involved, but Hark is a wizard when it comes to bubble-wrapping stuff; I bet we could make it work.

        Email address is on my commissions page at GAME OVER. Hit me up if you’re interested. I currently have time…

  4. Minitrol says:

    I thought you’d like that 😉

    I did 6 layers of black on my Chaplain last week…I felt dirty.

    Recipes annoy me to. Whta colour is that? Um can’t you see it and just go and buy the closest colour match? Or mix it yourself?

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