Painting Miniatures: How Good Should We Try to Be?

Today I want to share some more thoughts along the lines of my previous two posts (here and here) about the way we judge quality in miniature painting.

It’s fair to say that for a while there, during the 5th edition of Warhammer 40,000, there was a bit of community pressure to play as though it were a professional contest.  This competitive way of playing is certainly in the culture of other games too: video games and Magic: the Gathering already have professional players.

The reason I bring this up is because I’m noticing a shift towards imitation professionalism in the painting side of the hobby now.  There is an excellent post here at The Society For Doing Things, laying out a method for avoiding the amateur blues.  But I think it’s also interesting that this problem has emerged at all as something people have to face in their hobby.

We all know that there are professional miniature painters, and they are artists like any other.  It is their job, probably at least part-time, and they are probably trained in fine art or design and supported by a community of other pros.  But at the same time we have the wider community of amateur painters, myself included, and probably you too if you are reading this.  And we are beginning to up our expectations of ourselves and other amateurs in light of the highly visible professional’s work.

I don’t know if this is inevitable, but I don’t think it’s reasonable.  The vast majority of painters (myself included) are not going to be able to produce a professional finish because we aren’t professionals; we simply don’t have the resources in time, knowledge and motivation.  So why do we try to learn professional techniques, and try to mimic their style?  Why do we run contests and judge one another and then just hand the prizes every time to people who can paint like Giraldez? What is going to happen when it becomes obvious that there are a few elite painters, and the rest of us finally admit that we can never match them?  Are most of us going to stop trying?

Possibly.  My only suggestion right now is not to stop trying.  But stop expecting that you’ll ever produce a professional finish without effectively being a professional.  More importantly, stop assuming that other amateurs can and want to be that good.  Aim to create works that you are happy with, and that reflect your own aesthetic sensibilities, within your limits.  Develop a style instead of trying to be the best.  Critique other’s style, not their technique (unless they ask of course).

One more thought: why is it that only certain parts of the hobby seem up for grabs by both amateurs and professionals, and other parts are only for the pros?  It’s a lot less common to meet people who sculpt models from scratch, or design their own games from the ground up, than it is people who are trying to be great painters or successful competitive players.  I don’t see why this is; none of these things seems inherently easier to master or more accessible than any of the others to me.

Comments welcomed,


10 thoughts on “Painting Miniatures: How Good Should We Try to Be?

  1. The Warlock says:

    Ooh! Ooh! I know this one! Ha, childish enthusiasm aside the insight is pretty spot on.

    No, the majority of us won’t be able to match the professionals but it won’t ever stop (some) of us from trying. It’s a humanity thing- never give up, no matter the odds. A small few will eventually reach that standard, but they’ll be a select few (think a bell curve- dead center is an average paint job and three standard deviations above the average is your professional standard). Still, it is important to never give up but perhaps lower our goal a bit so “I want to paint at a professional standard” becomes “I want to paint to a level I’m happy with and to keep improving my technique/style”. The most important thing I think is to keep trying and keep some earlier painted models as motivation- how I painted dwarfs back in ’06 is MUCH worse than how I paint them in ’13. Just as long as they don’t look like these you’ll be fine 😛

    As for contests, I see them as a good and cool thing as fellow amateurs come together to show off the time, effort, skill and talent they have as a painter. The variety of skills, techniques and styles alone should be encouraging and inspiring for everyone involved with many a “how did you do that?” asked. Take some of the projects on various blogs and forums- quite a few a awe-inspiring.

    There was more I wanted to say but uni awaits


    • beat ronin says:

      Wow a lot of responses already, thanks 🙂

      Heya Pete the Warlock. Sounds like we’re on the same page. I don’t think people should stop trying, and like you said, people won’t. But I think it would be good if we had a bit of realism injected into our expectations. So maybe two tiers of criticism. You don’t take off an amateur boxer’s headgear and put him in the ring with a pro. Golf has pro and am circuits for a reason. I think with something like model painting we need to keep a sense of that sort of differentiation. Because it’s a niche thing and started out with amateurs only, it’s easy to slip into thinking that we’re all still playing on the same terms, when we aren’t.

      If I see a work by an amateur I critique their style, so “I like the bold colours” or “if you want it to look dramatic then maybe two-tone shading is a better idea than subtle blending”, stuff like that. There’s plenty of people around to tell you to thin your paint. I swear that’s what most of the critiques I see boil down to.

      As for improving, I hear you. I think I’ve hit the limit of my technical ability. Stuff I paint now is not much technically better than stuff I did in high school, if at all, but the style comes through stronger. I’m also enjoying experimenting lately with realism and weathering powders and oils. So even when you hit your limit there are always places to go.

  2. Rob F. says:

    First, James, thank you very much for the mention! I’m glad you liked the post.

    Secondly, to your question: I’ll answer from my own perspective. I’ve recently realised I’m a visual guy. I’ve got a great imagination, but there’s something about a realised image or object that just gets me. It’s why I’ve got a toy Corporal Hicks and Optimus Prime on the shelf behind me. It’s why I have a hankering for a toy of the VF-25F Messiah from Macross Frontier, even though I’ve only seen one episode of that show (it’s just a sweet looking figher jet / robot). And it’s what got me into Infinity in the first place; all those lovely images of – okay, I lie. It was one lovely image in particular – the Cutter.

    I’m still surprised that I haven’t Just Bought One yet…

    Back to the point, though. I think there’s something of a bait-and-switch with miniatures products. It’s not sneakily done or anything, but it’s still sort of there. I wasn’t sold by pictures of a plastic sprue or bare metal parts; I was sold on the professionally-painted image of the finished product. But that wasn’t what I actually bought.

    That idea then percolates into my own efforts at painting. How come my work doesn’t look as good as that box art, that gallery? Isn’t that what I bought?

    So maybe the obsession with a pro paint job that birthed my post is a result of that break between my personal skill and the ideal that motivated my purchase. The resistance to going my own way and accepting my own current level of skill comes from that frustration at not getting what I (thought I) bought.

    Not to mention not playing enough actual games of Infinity. I’ve only played that one Quick Start game as of this writing. Maybe just taking them out for a spin would ease my painting blues…

    • beat ronin says:

      Hi Rob, no worries! It was a good post. I saw it linked on the Infinity Australia facebook page. The intimidatingly high standard of the monthly contest there was one of the things that set me off on this train of thought in the first place.

      I definitely think you’re on to something with the bait and switch. It’s not really an issue from my perspective, as I came to miniature gaming through model painting when I was very young. It’s the painting I did first, so I’ve always seen the paint job as the point; something I do rather than a part of the model like you said. But I certainly get what you’re saying.

      And I hear you about not playing enough games. I’ve only played a couple of intro games. I’m finally getting one of my 40k-playing mates to give it a go on Wednesday night so hopefully a few run-ins with the quick start rules will be fun and not beyond me!

  3. SinSynn says:

    I loathe elitist types, or cats that look down their nose at what they view as an amateur- ish paint job. Especially when it’s like, some kid’s hard effort they’re insulting. Stop hating on the kid, yo.
    I’m not the greatest painter in the world, but I think it’s important that hobbyists support one another’s efforts (especially the kids. They’re the next gen of gamers, and yer gonna scare them off with yer whole, ‘you’re not good enough to hang with us’ attitude? Really? Sigh. Someone needs a punch in da neck -_-). Elitists need to be stomped out, since it’s in the best interests of everyone involved, from the FLGS owners to the TO’s and all the players in the community. Bad attitudes are like poison in the well…it’s gonna seep into everything and ruin it.
    The Ultimate Rival used to put people down who didn’t spend enough money on terrain. He would refuse to put his models down on any table that didn’t meet his standards. Eventually he extended this to his opponent’s armies- if yer stuff wasn’t painted well enough, he wouldn’t play. He didn’t want to put his army next to yers cuz it would make his look bad.
    He also used to face-rape people who came to him for a demo game, which the store we played at asked him to give.
    They quickly realized THAT was a mistake, when the people went running out the door and never came back.
    ‘I don’t care if they were potential customers. I’m not throwing a game to some scrub.’
    Sure enough, there’s some things ’bout him I don’t miss!

    • beat ronin says:

      Hey Sinsynn, yeah that last thing you said, about stomping noobs. I can’t handle that at all. I’m the sort of player who never tries had enough to be a challenge to a competitive type, so I suppose we’re all different. But if you can’t let your pride go long enough to pull your punches against a new player, then in my book that’s pretty arrogant and small.

      I’m not even talking about people putting amateurs down so much. I think the problem is sort of the opposite; boosting amateurs to try to reach a pro standard and teaching them that if they keep trying they will. And that the pro standard is what we should all be aiming for because that’s what “good painting” is. Well it’s true that if you keep trying you’ll get that good, in the same way it’s true that if you keep playing golf every day and have good equipment and a bit of talent you might get onto the pro circuit. But we don’t all pick up golf clubs with Tiger Woods as our role model, aiming to be as good as he is (I don’t pick up golf clubs at all by the way. I really should pick an analogy that I know something about).

      To an extent I think this is a specifically Australian problem. We have this awful cultural thing called “tall poppy syndrome” where if someone is good at something everyone else cuts them down. The Australian golfer (heh golf again) Greg Norman once said that if you show up to a party with a new sports car Americans will complement you. Australians will scratch it with their keys when you aren’t looking. It’s not nice.

      A side effect of this is that when we brag it’s almost undetectable, out of self-protection. The Infinity Australia facebook page has this monthly contest which is of a very high standard and in it’s second month is already sponsored by Corvus Belli and two other businesses for prizes. The group regularly has images of models painted to a well-finished pro standard with a comment under them saying something like “eh, knocked this out pretty quick so not up to my usual standard. Still decent enough I guess.”

      The net effect of this is that you see something amazing and you see the person who did it telling you it sucks, and you lose heart. I was considering entering last month until I saw the standard and realised that I wouldn’t be happy with myself unless I put in way more time and effort that I’m able. And even then I wouldn’t place. I think two tiers of contest would be nice. I might do well or even win an “amateur” contest, but not an open one. No way.

  4. Von says:

    I have very little patience for the kind of person who sneers at people proxying their WFB armies with ‘pound shop Citadel’ (that’s Mantic, if it weren’t obvious), disapproves of paint-jobs that don’t match their preferred style (jibes at the expense of ‘the cartoonish’ in Warmahordes circles make me laugh given the general aesthetic of the models and the whole ‘giant robots do wrestling moves on each other’ aspect) or huffs and puffs about an event not being the same format as the big tournaments (‘because practice makes perfect’).

    Fortunately, I don’t meet them very often.

    • beat ronin says:

      Hi Von, yep, those things rile me too. See my response to Sinsynn for a bit more detail about what I’m talking about here. I don’t even mean negative comments – I mean positive comments that set up an unrealistic standard as the norm.

      I reckon cartoonish style is vey appropriate for Warmachine, as you said. Come to think of it many styles work with most models, and style snobbery is a real and terrible thing. Infinity models are generally painted in an illustrative rather than realistic way, and I’m not sure why. You rarely see a true anime-esque paint job on them, which is odd since the models suit that, and you almost never see a realistic weathered style.

      If we’re going to be pretending to be artists here we need to learn some of the rules of art criticism. If you’re critiquing someone’s style, you do so on the basis of how well it works, not on whether they should have chosen it in the first place.

  5. Prodigal says:

    I think you should amend your post slightly at the end because it reads as having a bit more pessimism than your post scripts suggest. (The “stop trying” bit.) I think that the most useful way to become better at something is to try to copy masters. You are right that it’s important to not expect to replicate their results immediately, but trying as hard as one can to get to that level is the best way to improve. What is important is to always keep in perspective all of the practice and background that went into someone like Giraldez’s skills and to not expect that you can get there with shortcuts.

    For myself, I’ve found that by copying Angel’s paint schemes as closely as I can I’ve improved miles beyond where I was a year ago, and while my models don’t look like his, I no longer feel some futile envy that they don’t. So I know from personal experience that through perseverance you can come out on the other side of the tunnel not comparing your work to the pros’, but to your own.

    • beat ronin says:

      Hi Prodigal, welcome and thanks for the suggestion. I’ll do that – as you noticed, I didn’t mean to come off sounding negative.

      I think one of the best ways to improve is to copy the masters, but it’s not necessarily the best way. I’m not sure I think there is one best way – I mean, who did the masters copy? Presumably they went to art school or something similar and then put in a hell of a lot of practice, experimentation and thought over many years. As you said, there is an enormous amount of background and practice behind a professional finish, and you or I aren’t going to make anything that great unless we achieve a similar amount of experience. There’s just no short cut.

      But yeah, what I was trying to say was definitely not “stop trying to paint as well as you can” but rather a plea to the community to stop touting a professional finish as an achievable aim for most people.

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