The Minty Fresh Smell of Failure

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I haven’t been painting miniatures lately. I kept starting days expecting to paint at some point, but never quite getting to it. A few days ago I discovered that my wet palette had gone mouldy waiting for me to come back to it. Instead I’ve been working on an editing project for Reaper (more on that below), and I’ve been furiously writing a lot of draft material for blog posts or other ventures.

A few nights ago I tried to paint a miniature, and then this happened:

Storage container filled with Simple GreenAh Simple Green, the minty fresh smell of failure.

Throughout July I was participating in an intensive 30 day traditional art challenge30 Faces in 30 Days. Each day the class site posted the reference photo for the day, along with a lesson with one of the six instructors. This session of the challenge was focused on creating the artwork using the Procreate app on the iPad Pro, so part of the lessons include information on how to use the technical features of that app to make art. But all of them also require drawing at minimum a person’s head, and then doing all the rendering (adding colour, texture, etc.) in a variety of ways, which is a pretty ambitious project to do once per day.

I’d been ticking along pretty well with the challenge for about half the month. Then I hit a rush period with the editing work. Having learned from past experience, I wanted to be realistic with myself. I still did some drawing each day (it was a nice way to wind down after a lot of words and left brain activity all day), but I did not expect myself to complete every assignment every single day.

Digital painting of older manI’ve done a few pieces I’m pretty happy with!

That approach seemed to work pretty well, other than I did feel like I lost momentum. A few days ago I finished up the one I was working on during the editing and started on another. The drawing went pretty well. When I sat down to follow the instructions on how to add colour and continue on from the basic line drawing… that went less well. 

Some nights of this challenge I stayed up much later than I ought to have because I was having fun and I wanted to add more detail or polish than I might have needed to to complete the lesson, rather than than being sensible and just calling it good enough. (I stayed up pretty late working on the gentlemen above because I was having such fun with the hair and beard!) When I was working a few nights ago, I was up later than I wanted, but I was not having fun, and I just wanted to go to bed. What I was working on seemed lifeless and drab. It was many hours of work away from looking good as a realistic portrait, but nowhere near looking like the instructor’s slightly cartoony and faster approach. I am not as familiar/comfortable with that style, but I had successfully and cheerfully completed several other portraits of that nature on previous challenge days. I wasn’t identifying an obvious reason for why I was having so much trouble doing something like that with this portrait.

In-progress painting of a young womanThe drawing is not perfect, but it’s solid. The colour and shading feel much weaker. I’d already applied the digital version of Simple Green to the worst bits before I saved the picture, but even the stuff I didn’t erase is fairly blah.

I wasn’t happy with the work, but more upsettingly, I wasn’t happy with the experience. A while back I realized that I get a lot of enjoyment out of the experience itself of painting miniatures and drawing pictures. So much so, in fact, that it really shouldn’t matter so much whether the end result is great every time. As long as I’ve had fun and tried my best it’s a good day, and over time the end results will probably get better too. Since adopting this attitude, art activities have become much more of a refuge for me. If I’m stressed out and unhappy, doing some art is usually the best thing I can do for myself. The world and my worries fall away for a little while and it’s just this activity and this moment. 

At least art is my refuge and comfort until I have one those those days when it isn’t, and this was one of those days. It wasn’t distracting me and making me feel better, it was making me feel worse. Was it that I couldn’t get into the zone? Sometimes that happens, I’m just too distractible and I’m better off doing something else. I figured maybe it’s because I had been working on art so intensively for several weeks. Maybe it kind of was too much ‘work’ at this point, and what I needed was to back off a little and relax. 

The next day I spent time I would have spent drawing playing a goofy little video game (West of Loathing, loving it!) As evening rolled around, I felt I still needed a rest/change. And it had been far too long since I painted miniatures. I’ve got a backlog of things to paint stacking up and I need to get back into action on that! Knowing that it had been a while, I thought it would be best to pick an easy project. Nothing that needed superfine detail work (which is where I’d left off on the minis I have in progress), nothing a client needed to look showstopper amazing, not my favourite sculpt or something I’m working on to enter in a contest. Just a little something that would demand no more than simple and quick techniques. Most of my in progress minis are still packed away following some home renovations, so I didn’t have easy access to old shelf of shame candidates. I debated between speed painting a goblin or two, or finishing up a stone golem I’d started on a Reaper stream.

West of loathingAs an artist, I have very high expectations for game graphics. This game does not disappoint.

I chose the golem. Since I don’t speed paint a lot and goblins are on the small side, I was afraid that option might end up feeling more challenging than I intended. I looked at some pictures of statues for colour inspiration and chose some paints. I sat down and started to paint while listening to Anne Foerster’s latest AMA video. And… ugh. The technical side of the painting was feeling frustrating in that I didn’t feel I was getting the brush and paint to do what I wanted with a lot of ease or success. I examined my expectations and attitudes and reminded myself that it’s a stone statue, getting too fussed about blending or whatever at this early stage would be falling into a trap of wasting time trying to perfecting an element that wouldn’t be fully visible after the planned washes and glazes. This was just meant to get an initial lay-in of shadows and highlights on the figure. 

So I plug along, and still ugh. Maybe it was the colours. I wasn’t using true neutral greys because a lot of stone doesn’t really look like that. I had chosen colours based on a real life statue and the chosen colours seemed like they should work in terms of colour theory, but the end result was just looking weird and off-putting to me. The blue was very dominant. I grabbed the older smaller version of the stone golem that I had painted using warm greys with a super quick wash and drybrush to use as an example for the for the stream to compare and I felt like it looks miles better than this one I was labouring over. I did a quick test of using a wash and drybrush with the colours I’d selected based on a real life statue, and yep, seems like maybe the colours suck. Or I’m having one of those days where literally everything I touch is going to turn to crap so the best answer is to walk away.

Sg wip1 back 600

The above is a work-in-progress picture I took. You’re going to look at it and think it’s not so bad. Honestly I’m not sure I think it’s so bad, either, though I do think the blue in the shadows is way too strong. This is a good example of why it’s always better to just walk away and look at the miniature again the next day before making any drastic decisions. And the vast majority of the time, that’s exactly what I do. This time…

I was looking at the golem and I was worried I’d caked up some of the surface texture with paint. Even though it’s a bigger piece, and this was only a few more coats of paint so that probably wasn’t likely. But I could see some texture in that paint, so I worried. I figured I’d better change colours and maybe just start out with some basic drybrushing and washing. But that would be more coats of paint, and it’s for Reaper not my own game table, so I decided a swim in some stripper is in order. I very rarely strip figures. Reaper paints are a pretty fluid consistency, it takes a lot of coats to fill in detail. So when I do mess up, I usually just paint over and try again. So rarely do I strip a mini that I had thrown away my stripping jar when I packed up for the renovations more than a year ago. But I was annoyed enough about this to go dig up a new container and set up a new stripping jar to dunk this figure. 

And the next morning when I tried to scrub the paint off, I had trouble getting it to come off, even though it was very fresh. I was feeling even more frustrated – like I can’t even get paint OFF a miniature successfully right now, never mind on to it. After two days of failure, I wasn’t sure what to do to get back into the swing of things.

I don’t tell this story to ask for sympathy. Actually I hesitated to tell this story. I know how annoying it is when people with skills you envy complain about how ‘bad’ they are at doing the thing. They’ll show something they say is ‘terrible’, and you can only wish that you’d ever be able to make something as good as what they think is terrible. I also hesitated to write about this because want this blog to be positive and encouraging helpful to people. I want you to find ways to feel better about what you paint, and just put more value in the act of painting itself!

Recently I wrote about some of my past struggles with attitudes that held me back from learning and painting in the past. From the responses I received, that resonated with a lot of people and many found it comforting to know other artists share similar struggles, even ‘successful’ ones. So I decided sharing this experience might be worth sharing for similar reasons.

I also thought it was a useful example since it’s a pretty simple project. Failure and frustration, even for well-practiced people, don’t only happen in experimental or lofty pursuits. You can occasionally experience frustration trying to do simple projects using familiar tools. It just happens sometimes.

This is far from the first time I’ve experienced a little slump like this. It’s aggravating, and it feels like I must be really be much worse at this art stuff than I imagined. I’m at a bit of a loss on what to do when the thing that usually makes me feel better is making me feel worse. But another part of me knows that this has happened before, and if I give it a day or two and try again it’s likely to work itself out just fine. Maybe the way I feel is making me think the stuff I was working on is worse than it is. Or maybe it really is pretty awful, but one awful thing doesn’t mean I’ll never make anything good again. Either way the best answer is probably to relax, come at it from a slightly different angle, and not dive into an analysis of what is wrong with those pieces specifically until I’m emotionally recovered and back in the saddle.

If you enjoy listening to artists talk about their experiences, I highly recommend the Crow’s Nest stream on the Reaper Twitch channel. It airs Tuesdays at 5pm Eastern. The videos are also archived on YouTube. The host, Michael Proctor, paints on the stream, and he does share tips, but the main focus of the show is a conversation with a weekly guest. Guests include miniature sculptors and painters. The conversations are like ones I enjoy having with artist friends when we get together at conventions, so the show is a very welcome balm in this time when going places and seeing people has been cancelled. (There are some upcoming online conventions though!)


I wrote the above right after the frustrating art days, and then with one thing and another didn’t get around to posting it. Since then I have managed to get back in the saddle with both drawing and miniature painting. 

IMG 0295It’s got a way to go, but working on this was less frustrating.

Project and Product Information

The editing project I mentioned was working on the Brinewind setting guide for ReaperCon. This is a setting-neutral printed book included in the Brinewind swag box. It’s closed to pre-orders now, but will go up for sale on the Reaper Miniatures site some time next week. (On or after August 10, 2020.) Joseph Wolf filled this to the brim with cool locales, salty pirate characters, and adventure hooks, with contributions from a few other writers (including yours truly), and great cover and interior art by Izzy “Talin” Collier, and additional art by Gene Van Horne, Jason Wiebe, and Christine Van Patten. 

It was very interesting to work on such an intensive editing and writing project. I don’t mention it a lot, but my college studies were in English and then Journalism with a focus on editing. That’s not what I ended up doing with my life, so it was a bit of a rare treat to work on what I studied for so long! 

Trog1 wip1 600I picked a troglodyte to warm back up on miniature painting, and tried out some of the cool Pathfinder paint colours I haven’t used enough yet.

The art challenge has been an interesting activity, too. There are a lot of these for traditional artists, but there are opportunities for miniature painters, as well. I wrote a bit more about art challenges previously. (Some day I need to write more about my favourite mini painting challenge, Iron Painter, which sadly I do not think is being held anymore.)

*For those who are unfamiliar with it, Simple Green is a household cleaning product that can also be used to strip paint and primer from miniature figures. It is not the quickest or more efficient product for that use. People recommend everything from brake fluid to acetone to oven cleaner as faster and better. But all of the faster and better options are caustic and many are toxic. Simple Green is safe for household use and does not damage the materials most miniatures are made from (probably all, but I haven’t really tested 3D prints on it and such.) You need to soak the figure for 12-24 hours and then scrub with a toothbrush, and for really old or caked on paint/primer may need to do that a few times. Given the trade offs and how rarely I strip figures, it’s the solution that works best for me.

2 thoughts on “The Minty Fresh Smell of Failure”

    1. Student, I dunno about maven. I graduated from studying the thing, I never actually did the thing. ;-> Also to be clear I am old, so this is back when Journalism actually was.


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