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When I wrote my New Year’s resolution suggestion for you to FAIL, I planned to write a follow-up post comparing my experiences of failure in my miniature painting and traditional art journeys. Writing that turned out to be much more challenging than I expected, in ways both related and unrelated to the topic, but I’m going to go with this for now, and just post again on the topic in the future if I figure out how to say it better.
I spent several days earlier this year going through pictures of the miniatures I’ve painted, from the very first learn to paint kit ones I painted in 2003, to the most recent ones I’ve finished. My goal was to find examples to use in an AdeptiCon class that I was designing to help people learn to critique their own figures, and to have more success applying the information from critiques they receive from others to their practice of miniature painting. And then AdeptiCon (and everything else) was canceled and I wasn’t able to try out that class. But taking a trip back in time raised some thoughts about my experiences learning to paint miniatures that I thought might be worth sharing here.
My first fully painted miniature! From the first generation Reaper Learn to Paint Kits. This took me 6-8 hours. (September 2003)
I took up the hobby of miniature painting in 2003 with the goal of learning high level display painting techniques. Although I liked that figures could also be used for role-play gaming, we weren’t playing much at the time, so it wasn’t my focus. I wanted a hobby that was a physical activity and not purely cerebral as many of my other hobbies were. I was inspired by the great pictures more and more people were starting to be able to share with each other online, and the community that was growing up around that sharing. I avidly consumed online tutorials (text and pics only back then!), and spent a lot of time in classes as I began to attend conventions like Gen Con and ReaperCon.
I had a number of positive experiences and accomplishments throughout those years. There were also several negative experiences. Some of these were related to health problems, or other factors beyond the scope of what we’re talking about here. But as I look back, a number of them were related to my attitude and expectations about learning a skill. I can see now that I got in the way of my own goals quite a bit.
I made a mosaic! With a piece of screen door mesh and some Sculpey. There are more efficient and pleasing ways to do this, but I think it’s cool I at least tried. :-> (November 2003)
I took up more traditional artwork as a hobby about five years years ago. My goals were more nebulous, and my interests far too wide, but one element in common was the drive to want to be good at it. And just as when I started painting miniatures, I wasn’t. I wasn’t awful, but I wasn’t good. That first year or so I made a lot of the same mistakes I made in my mini painting journey, and I experienced a lot of the same negative feelings. But over time various elements came together that gave me a better understanding of how we learn (particularly in art related areas), how much my choices and my attitudes affected my experiences, and what the true value of the activity is for me.
I’ve been trying to share information about how we learn, and how the ways that the human eye and brain work can cause us roadblocks in pursuing artistic endeavours, and I have plans to share more of that in the future. I think that identifying the true value of an activity like miniature painting is also a topic that deserves its own post. Right now what I want to talk about is how my choices and attitudes affected my experiences, and the differences in learning one hobby and the other.
Freehand! I even wrote up a little tutorial for how I did this. Also an early and only partially successful attempt at basing using texture stamps. (October 2004)
Mismatch Between Goals and Action
It seems obvious to say something like if we make one kind of goal but adopt a contradictory type of action/practice it might not work out so well, but that is something a lot of us do, so maybe it’s not always so obvious. ;-> With miniature painting I had the goal to be world class amazing. But I did not practice for hours every day. Or even practice every day. Or sometimes even every week. Even today I end up spending much less time at it than I should. Yet I would often feel down about how I had been painting for X amount of months/years and wasn’t much better, Or I would be sad that I would never catch up to painters I admired. Or filled with sheer frustration over not learning fast enough.
Written out like that, you can see it doesn’t make sense. I was trying to have my cake and eat it too. To keep both of those contradictory ideas in my head at the same time could only result in unhappiness, which it did on many occasions in my miniature painting journey. The number of years I had been painting didn’t matter. The amount of hours I spent painting during those years was far more significant. (And there’s more to learning than just putting in time, but putting in time definitely matters!)
Perhaps my first real attempt at being a bit ‘artsy’ by playing with contrast of colour saturation, as well as a bit of sculpting. The attempt was fine, if nothing special. The disappointment that my artiness was not recognized with accolades was silly. (June 2005)
In working to take a more positive approach with my traditional art study, I am trying to be more realistic about this. If I get down about my lack of progress, I stop myself and check in on the amounts of time I’m putting into my practice. If those time amounts are fairly modest, then it is only reasonable for my amount of progress to be modest, and it is unproductive to make myself unhappy about it.
It would make a lot more sense to either:
1. Keep the ambitious goal and buckle down and spent a LOT of time practicing. That means having to accept doing less of other activities. Depending on one’s responsibilities and leisure preferences, this may or may not be a possibility.
2. Admit that I can’t or won’t do the activity with the intensity and time investment required to meet an ambitious goal and instead adjust my goals and expectations. I can still aim to improve, but I need to understand that it’s going to take a lot longer. I’m going to see new people who spend more time at it sprint ahead of me, and I might never catch up to my idols. Neither of those things makes what I do accomplish meaningless! I’m making choices to enjoy other hobbies or fulfill other demands and responsibilities of life. (And being understanding with myself about physical and mental limitations.)
This was so much cooler in my head. :-< (October 2006)
Setting Your Own Goals
Speaking of goals… this isn’t something that’s been a major issue in much of my personal journey, but I have definitely seen it affect others. You get to decide your goals and what makes you happy. There’s no requirement in miniature painting that you ‘should’ always be striving to get better and win contests and so on. If what you enjoy is just kicking back and knocking out a tabletop miniature in an hour or four, then DO THAT! If you love constant experimentation and want to paint all over the map in terms of style and scale and whatever else but don’t necessarily care about contest-perfect finish, then DO THAT!
But you need to accept that whatever choice you make means you can’t also expect to excel at what you aren’t doing. You can’t paint minis with a kick back and relax attitude and ALSO get upset about not winning awards. Well, you can, but you’re only hurting yourself if you do.
Whereas this one came out cooler than I had hoped! (November 2007)
My personal example for this one is actually from my experience in university. I was a smart kid with smart parents. My Mom literally saved up her pennies from the time I was born for me to go to university. My parents didn’t go on and on about it, it was just the understood track of my life. I went, and I was pretty miserable. The experience was not at all what I imagined. When I was home for Christmas break in year two, my Mom said to me “You know you don’t have to go to university, right?” And I did not know that. The thought had literally never occurred to me. The entire concept was so freeing. I finished up the year, and then got a job. And then realized what I might actually want to do when I grew up and went back to school with much more of a plan. That second round was a much more positive experience. (I’m not going to say the plan unfolded as planned, but at least there was a plan. ;->)
You get to decide why you’re painting miniatures and what your miniature painting goals are. You don’t have to do what everyone else is doing. You just have to accept the consequences of your choices.
Again, so much cooler in my head. I did two versions of the stone tile base. The one I didn’t use was slightly less awful. (August 2008)
You Can’t Study Your Way out of Risk or Failure
With an intellectual challenge like a science test or history essay, the more you study the subject, the more likely you are to learn and remember information. Those learning methods work well for purely mental pursuits, but they are much less useful with a skill like miniature painting that has a large physical component involving manipulation of tangible tools. Despite having also taken art and music in school, I don’t think I really grasped the difference in methods for learning information versus mastering skills until much more recently.
If you were teaching a young person how to cook, would you have them start by watching hours of cooking shows every day? You would probably start by showing them a few basic cooking techniques and have them practice those by preparing simple dishes. Even if you were starting with a young person who did like to watch a lot of cooking shows, would you assume they’d be able to prepare complex gourmet dishes the first time they cooked for themselves? You’d likely still start with some basics. And you’d understand that mastering those basics wouldn’t mean they’d be able to perfectly perform more complex tasks the first time they try them, regardless of how many times they’ve seen someone do it on TV. Miniature painting is a lot closer to cooking than it is to writing a history essay or doing equations.
I painted this a few months BEFORE the preceding figure. (May 2008)
Watching videos or reading articles/posts while you’re at lunch or commuting or similar activities can be a fun way to enjoy your hobby when it’s not possible to sit down and actually paint. When you do have the ability to paint, spending a lot of time watching or reading thinking that you’re ‘preparing’ yourself can do you more harm than good. This is not a test that you’re studying for: more study is not the right approach. You need to watch or read about a technique enough to understand the tools you’ll need to have on hand and the general procedure to follow. And then you just need to sit down and try it. You very likely won’t achieve your desired result on your first few tries. Or even if the end result looks okay, it’ll take much longer than you think it should to achieve.
Poorer or slower than hoped results are not you ‘failing the test’. You can’t do mental study alone to prepare for a physical task. Sitting down and trying is how you study for and learn physical tasks. You have to try, assess your results, and then adjust your process the next time you try in an effort to find what works best for you.
You can study a video/article to get ideas about the correct consistency of the paint, or how to choose shade and highlight colours, or which brush to use for a technique and how to manipulate it. Studying the same material repeatedly won’t increase your chance of success on your first attempts because this is not memorization type of knowledge. You need to sit down and perform the task to figure out what is the correct paint consistency, brush, etc. for you to try to do the task. Studying how a bunch of different painters do the task before even trying it once yourself is also likely to be counter-productive. You’re more likely to confuse yourself with contradictory information than to clarify the ‘right’ way to do the task. (Because with a lot of things there isn’t one ‘right’ way, it’s a question of finding the right way for you.) If you try something and it doesn’t work well for you, it can be helpful to study how another painter or two performs that task to get ideas for what you might do that would work better, but filling your mind with dozens of variations before you even try it is just going to be confusing.
My painting might have been improving. My basing… (December 2009)
Time Spent Learning is Not Wasted Time
Now this definitely was a big one for me personally. Outside of a very occasional figure I painted to goof around with or for a game character, I painted miniatures as Serious Business. I was Investing Time when I painted. If I tried something and it didn’t turn out well, I had committed the grievous sin of Wasting Time. And that turns out to have been a very unhelpful and limiting attitude. That is not an attitude that encourages learning and experimentation.
It raised the stakes on taking risks, so I would often hold back on trying cool new effects and techniques I was studying. There were lots of occasions where I would start a figure intending to try to do something tough like freehand and then chicken out later because I was already 15 hours into painting the figure and it looked good and I didn’t want to ‘ruin’ it. It can be frustrating to be slower at something, but why was it that demoralizing that I might try something and have to spend a few hours trying it again to get it right? If I did the blending successfully once, would I really not be able to do it again if I messed up and needed to fix it? Except for the most delicate of sculpts, it’s generally no issue to paint over a section on a figure a few times. The real issue was my attitude.
This isn’t a bad piece. It also isn’t a great one. I expected a way more enthusiastic response to it than it got, and I ended up having a lot of negative feelings around it as a consequence. (September 2010)
This is an area where things are a little easier in the realm of traditional art. Studies and sketches are pretty standard. It’s not odd to just do quick sketches or have half a notebook practicing drawing noses or something, in fact it’s highly recommended. And a few dozen nose drawings take up a lot less space than a dozen figures where I practiced blending or whatever, but with a little creative thought I could have just practiced speed painting on the rest of the figures, or just painted over them or stripped them or packed them away. What I have now come to understand is that painting sessions don’t have to conclude with a well painted figure to have been time well spent.
Learning Something New Takes Time and Discomfort
When I was looking back through all the figures I’ve painted, one of the things I noticed was that every now and then there would be a figure where I worked on something much more advanced or out of my comfort zone than compared to the rest of the things I did in that same time period. An experimentation with more complex colour use, more dramatic lighting, different blending techniques, whatever thing. Usually these were a result of a class or a tutorial I studied online. And most were just one-offs. Sometimes they would go on to influence my direction, or there would be lessons that I took from them moving forward. But most of them were me making the start of going down a more interesting and fruitful path and then turning around and walking back to the same path I’d been on before. It’s so frustrating to see where I had glimpses of the kinds of things I needed to do to improve my craft much earlier and then just let them drop.
This piece ended up being a bit of a milestone in my painting journey for reasons having nothing to do with tools or techniques. (July 2011)
Trying something new, be it a new paint line, new brush, new technique, or new approach to using colour or something else more complex like that is hardly ever a question of one and done. It needs to be something you try repeatedly or find a way to work into regular practice or it’s going to get forgotten and be a curiosity you don’t know how to repeat. Habits take time to form, and that includes habits of how you approach painting.
I hope that you aren’t getting in your own way the way I did, but if you think that you might be, I hope these thoughts might give you some ideas about how to be kinder to yourself in the future. My realizations about these issues weren’t something that happened overnight, and honestly I still have to work at having healthier and more constructive thoughts about a lot of these things. But since I have been making that mental effort, my frustrations have been fewer and of shorter duration, so I think it has been a helpful exercise.
Figures in this Post
The Anhurian Swordsman is available in Bones plastic or in metal.
Arilyn the Water Sorceress with shell
The Fairy Dragon is available in metal and in plastic.
The Crane Courtier miniature is no longer being produced.
The Lady of Darkness figure is also out of production, though a modified version is available.
The Wyrd Hell’s Angels are no longer in production.
Witchy Meg is part of a Demon Children pack.
The Vampiress is available in metal with tomb accessories.
The tombstone comes form another pack, though.
Cersei Lannister. The fountain was converted/assembled.
Bourbon Street Sophie was a con special, but is now available to everyone!
Firefox and Captain Griffon are metal figures.
Wyrd completely redid their product lines and this version of Alyce and this ice golem are no longer produced.
The Lady in Waiting #2 is part of the Dark Sword line based on the Game of Thrones books.