Display Painting versus Tabletop Painting

I’m still working on a bit more of an overview post of my experience painting the hydra I showed in my last post. In the meantime, I was thinking about the conversations I had with people about painting at the countdown party. 

Hydra side viewLate pledges are available if you missed the Kickstarter campaign.

I was very happy to talk with people about painting and try to share some tips. My painting knowledge is built on a foundation of generosity of other artists taking time to share what they know, and I want to give back to the community in the same way. I also genuinely enjoy geeking out about one of my favourite things with other fans! But there were times when I felt like the information I shared was disappointing to people since a lot of it summed up to the big ‘trick’ in painting this was time and patience.

When you’re learning a new skill, you tend to assume that as you get better at it, you’ll be able to do things in a similar amount of time and with similar techniques, just better and quicker. Certainly there are skills or areas in which this may be true. I’m not a great cook. I could follow a recipe to make a pie crust, but it would take me a lot more time and effort than a professional baker or even a practiced and enthusiastic home cook. And my results would likely neither look nor taste as good as theirs. They have a lot more experience and possibly access to better tools than I do. However, there are also areas where neither expertise nor tools are the limiting factor. My pie is going to take about as long to cook as the expert’s, and there’s not much either of us can do about that.

Cmon speed paints - frontA group of pro painters including myself, Jen Haley, Elizabeth Beckley-Bradford, and Clay Williams painted these Robb Stark models in a 90 minute speed painting challenge at CMON Expo 2018. The figures benefit from our painting expertise, but display models they are not.

Now I’m going to look at a more art based example. Someone who is in the earlier stages of learning to draw can produce an accurate and realistic drawing, whether through use of tools like grid drawing or just sheer effort. I did some decent drawings in my early days of starting my learning traditional art journey. But just like my attempt to make a pie crust, they took a lot of time and effort on my part. And they weren’t the norm. There were a lot more terrible drawings than decent ones. That stands in stark contrast with the work of a skilled artist, who can do quick sketches that look attractive and realistic in a few minutes. That is the value of practice and repetition, but also a lot of knowledge and experience that the artist draws upon.

I think people look at something I’ve painted like the hydra and parallel it to the example of the two artists above. They assume it’s the ‘pro’ version of their tabletop or speed painted miniatures. But it’s not really an apples to apples comparison. It’s more like comparing a pencil sketch to a high rendered photo realistic drawing. There’s a foundation of knowledge that applies to both, and there are some similar tools and techniques. But one is not the evolution of the other. It’s more like siblings or cousins.

Cmon speed paints - back viewMy figure is the second from the right, and is the weakest of the bunch. The painters who are more successful at balancing speed and end result than I am picked colour schemes with much more contrast, and enhanced those with painting techniques that enhanced the pop of the figure, and then sprinkled a dash of an extra like weathering and/or freehand on top. I spent too much time worrying about blending.

A professional painter, particularly one who paints armies or other tabletop figures regularly for commission, is like the professional baker making the pie crust. They have good tools and materials, but also a wealth of experience to draw on to create a great looking result in less time than a beginner or casual painter. Something they speed paint might be to a standard a beginner is aspiring to do as a display painted piece. But a lot of high level display painting techniques we use are more like the baking time in the oven for the pie, or the time it takes to render a quick sketch into a fully painted picture – there’s no quick trick or tool that does the job for you, it just takes time and patience.

Hydra - pre scale liningA work-in-progress picture of the hydra before I painted in the lining between the scales.

The lining between the scales of my hydra is a good example. Using quick painting techniques, most people would line between the scales by using a wash of a darker colour. Or maybe they would start by painting a dark coat of paint and then drybrush or sidebrush lighter colours on top of the scales, leaving the lines in between them dark. This figure is sculpted with a lot of great definition, and those techniques should work well to paint it. But that’s not how I painted mine, and I don’t think you could use those techniques and get a result that looks like what I got.

Hydra - after scale liningThe same view of the hydra with the lining painted between the scales. It adds a lot of impact and texture!

The way I painted the lines between the scales of the hydra was… to paint the lines between the scales of the hydra. I used a fine tipped brush, patience, and a little over two hours of my life. The only ‘tip’ type thing I did that might not be obvious to the viewers is something that made the process even more fiddly, not less! I did not use a single colour of lining over the whole figure. If you compare the value (lightness/darkness) of an area of scales to the lining around it, you’ll see that it’s fairly constant over the whole figure. It looks that way because I used a lighter brown colour to line between the lightest colour scales, a blue-black to line between the darkest colour scales, and a couple of mixes in between. In total I used five values of lining. Possibly I could have gotten a similar effect with four or perhaps even three value mixes, but in for a penny, in for a pound is how I tend to paint. ;->

Hydra scale lining paletteThe dried liner mixes in my welled palette.

My analogies are to an extent a simplification. There is a gray area between tabletop painting and high level display painting. High tabletop, basic level display painting, I’m not sure what you’d call it, but the basic gist is something both fast and good. There are some limits to how fast you can paint like this, and just how good of a result you can get with this. It uses techniques from both ends of the spectrum, so if this kind of painting is your goal, it is worth studying information from display level painters. Most people who paint miniatures for a living probably paint to this level as much as they can – as good as you can get it to look, in the least time possible. But when they paint a very high level commission piece or a contest entry that pulls out all the stops, they use techniques that take a lot of time and skill, like individually lining every scale on the hydra.

That balancing act between end result and time commitment is one of the ways I am not very good at my job. I’m working at getting a little better at it, but through my entire miniature painting experience I have tended to use time and brute force and focused on the quality of end result, and done a poor job of learning increased efficiency and good planning to improve on time. Or even just learned to accept that a lot of the time 80% of the best I can do is good enough.

As a result, those who are seeking information on how to better balance high quality result and speed are probably better off consulting other painters. :-> Two of the best painters I know for this both share their experience on Patreon if you’d like to learn a lot more tips and tricks than you could from a quick convention conversation. (And they also teach full classes at conventions.) Look up James Wappel and Aaron Lovejoy.

4 thoughts on “Display Painting versus Tabletop Painting”

  1. Thanks, Rhonda, for another great article. I always appreciate your info and techniques. Since I’ve been trying to apply them to my own painting, I have noticed an improvement in my work. Keep that info coming!

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  2. I have to admit, I’d never ONCE considered changing the value/hue of my lining color depending on where on the model I’m lining! But now that I’ve read your post, I can’t for the life of me figure out why I’ve never tried it before!! I’m absolutely going to give that a try; it will help me on my journey toward greater overall cohesion in how I’m applying value across the entire mini. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences!

    Tabletop vs. Display is something I’ve pondered about quite a lot, and it’s taken me several years to decide that my personal take on the difference isn’t so much the general quality of the mini, but what its intended purpose is.

    For example, I painted several of our Pathfinder players’ character minis the same way I paint my display minis (focusing on nice blending, precise details, good color balance across the mini, etc.). However, one day while gaming, I suddenly noticed that out on the game board, they looked fairly dull in comparison to the minis I’d spent less than an hour on. Even though the PC minis were, on a technical level, far better painted than the other ones, this only became noticeable when the mini was about 6 inches from my nose. The quick minis, though, tended to look best from a couple of feet away, with much starker contrast and more vibrant colors, even though they were quite rough up close. At arm’s length, all the lovely details and blending I’d spent so much time on for the PC minis simply…vanished. It was truly an eye-opening experience, and one that I’ve tried to keep in mind every time I pick up a new mini to paint. I ask myself what job this mini will have when I’m done with it, and try to paint it accordingly. 🙂

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    1. I am very much a person who misses things that seem obvious in retrospect until someone else points them out, so I get that! I do the same thing with lining between locks on hair, though usually that only takes two or three value levels at most.

      I’m going to throw out a potentially mind-bending thought in relation to your observation about miniatures on the tabletop. Ideally you want your display miniatures to have that same ‘pop’ at arm’s length as the tabletop ones that you realized were standing out better. You want that same contrast and eye-catching colour scheme use, but with the display type finish of blending and textures and detailing layered on top of it. You want your figure to stand out to the judge or viewer from a distance waving ‘look at me, I’m super cool’, and to have them to continue to agree that the figure is super cool when they do look closer. It’s tough to pull off (definitely still working at it, a lot of my figures look much nicer in photos than they do on a shelf competing for attention with jazzier things), but that’s the ideal, and if you look at the really top tier display stuff, you’ll see that’s what they’re doing. Grab some pictures of great figures you like that others have painted and shrink the photos down and you should be able to see what I mean.

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