Why do You Paint Miniatures?

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Before we jump in to another year of articles aiming to help you improve your miniature painting, I’d like to suggest you take a moment to think about why you paint miniatures – what do you get out of the activity?

The first response for a lot of people might be something along these lines:

* I love when I plunk down some monsters on our terrain board and the players get nervous and excited.

* It feels more immersive to play games when everyone’s figures are painted.

* It gives me a lot of satisfaction when I post a picture/enter a contest/give a gift and my work gets a lot of positive reactions.

Screen Shot 2021 01 14 at 5 17 39 PMKnightheart Gaming puts together epic boards for our Reaper Errant role-playing sessions. We even had a snow effect on screen during this scene!

Those kinds of answers revolve around the end result of the activity of painting – the painted miniature. But a lot of time and effort and moments of frustration occupy the time in between the moment when you decide to paint something and the moment when you finish it and get to use or share it. Like A LOT. Even for a simple speed painted tabletop figure, since the time involved to create it includes all the time you’ve spent learning to do what you do. 

Fem bard cropWhether you start with a blank page or a bare miniature, there’s a lot of activity in between start and finish. It really helps to figure out what you love about that activity! (The Female Bard with Harp is based on artwork by Stephanie Law.)

So my question really is: what specifically do you like about those moments in between idea and completion? What value do you get out of the acts of prepping, building, sculpting, painting, and basing miniature figures? 

You may not have a lot of responses to that question right away. Answering what you dislike is a lot easier. (I hate mould lines and gluing things together!) Or you might think more about negative experiences you’ve had during the process, like that time you tried a new technique and you sucked at it and you felt horrible. (I literally cried the first time I tried to paint non-metallic metal!) Or how frustrating it is to have been told yet again that you need more contrast when you’ve been pushing and pushing and pushing your contrast forever. Our brains seem wired to take note of frustrations and obstacles, so answering questions about what we don’t like is pretty easy for most of us.

It can be harder to notice and put a name to more positive experiences. Those moments of contentment, of zen, or even of joy that might occur during your hobby activities. While they’re positive experiences, they’re often not dramatic to stand out in your mind. It may take you some time of thinking about this for you to notice the positive moments, or figure out how to define and describe them. But once you start to look for them, they’re there! (In the unlikely event that you find you really don’t enjoy literally anything at all about your hobby, maybe it’s time to put it aside for a little while and focus on an activity you find more fulfilling.)

Lamp 600Think about what you enjoy about the process the next time you sit down to paint.

I would like to suggest an exercise to you for the next few sessions you paint. When you sit down to do hobby activities, try to keep a little piece of your mind on watch to take notice when you have moments of enjoyment, moments when you are getting something of positive emotional value from the activity. When you stop to go get a drink or stretch your back, reflect back on what you’ve just been doing and consider how you feel about it. At the end of your session, put down what you’ve been working on, or even put it away. Spend a few minutes thinking about your experience of the work session, unrelated to how you feel about the results of the work itself.

I recommend that you keep a notebook and pen by your work area to jot down your discoveries. (Or your phone/tablet/laptop if you prefer to take digital notes.) Be specific and make notes about the activity you enjoy and what you like about it. You don’t need to ever share your observations with me or anyone else, though you are most welcome to share here in the comments here.

Whatever you learn will be valuable information you can use to increase your enjoyment and motivation of your hobby. When you feel like everything you’re working on is a slog, chances are you aren’t including enough time spent on the activities you most enjoy. You can refer back to your list to try to add more of those into the mix. You can also use the desire to enjoy those positive feelings to motivate you to get to your desk and do hobby tasks. That kind of motivation is often more effective than trying to lure yourself with the distant promise of how great the finished product will be. On occasions when you get frustrated because a new technique or colour scheme or whatever didn’t turn out well, you can remind yourself that what you did was not in fact a waste, because you had those moments of enjoying doing the activity.

Visor goofReally zoom in and examine your feelings in detail.

I’m going to share my personal observations, to give you some examples of what I mean about positive experiences during the process, as well as some ideas for how I use that information to improve my motivation and attitude. (Internet persona to the contrary, I am definitely not someone blessed with either motivation or positive attitude!)

I started to paint miniatures more than 17 years ago. I’ve had many successes over those years, and I’ve learned a lot, but the journey has not been a smooth one. There were many, many episodes of frustration, boredom, crushing failure, and loneliness. My successes have been in spite of those challenges, not because of them. 

I began a similar journey of working on traditional art a little over five years ago. (Drawing and painting on flat surfaces.) In the first year or two, I could see patterns emerging that were similar to how I had studied and practiced and been frustrated by learning to paint miniatures. I didn’t want to go through that again. I wanted to enjoy the journey, not just hope that maybe one day I’d feel better about this when I was ‘good at it’.

I did two things that I think have made a dramatic difference to my experience of learning traditional art compared to my experience of learning to paint miniatures.

One is that I committed to doing some kind of art activity every day. It didn’t have to be an inspired amazing piece of art. It didn’t have to be for more than five minutes. It just had to be something, and it had to be every day. Some days I did only manage the minimum, some days I managed a lot more. At first this was just for a month in a challenge along with some friends. I kept going after the month for about two years, only missing a couple of days in that span. I tried some other practice approaches for a while, but I’ve now gone back to the minimum daily idea, though I’m not quite as strict about it currently. (These are tough times, and I’m taking my own advice to be kind to myself!) 

Rawpixel 760102 unsplashDon’t wait for motivation/inspiration – schedule your painting sessions and show up for yourself. You’re worth it! (Photo by rawpixel from Unsplash.)

Depending on your schedule and work area set-up, it may or may not be practical to try to do at least five minutes of hobby related activity every day, but you can accomplish something similar by scheduling hobby sessions and showing up for yourself.

The other thing I did is what I’m suggesting you do here – I figured out what I find fulfilling about the process of doing traditional art, and of painting miniatures. I discovered that I really do enjoy the activities in and of themselves, and that my enjoyment of the process is often completely separate from my feelings about the end result. (As I discussed in this recent episode of the Crow’s Nest, sometimes our negative feelings about our work can also be completely separate from its merit as a finished product!)

Here are some of my discoveries about what I enjoy. Some of these may resonate with you, some may not, but hopefully they’ll give you some ideas as you try to discover what is important to you.

BannerLining the scales was a moment of transformation.

I love ‘the zone’. For me the zone is that feeling when my focus narrows down to just the thing I’m doing and the thoughts around it. My mind stills. All the negative mental chatter, the guilt, weight of responsibilities – all of it fades and I just think about this thing in this moment. That is a pretty powerful thing! It’s not absolute. I can’t always get there. For reasons unknown, I get in the zone more often or more completely with traditional art than when miniature painting, which is unfortunate given my job. (Or maybe it’s because one is my job and the other isn’t, dunno.) But still, that’s pretty amazing stuff. Even if I never had any good end results, that makes drawing and painting an activity worth doing!

I like moments of transformation. One of my first ‘oh wow that’s so cool’ moments in miniature painting happened when I painted my second miniature, from the original Reaper Learn to Paint Kits. Following the instructions, I painted the chainmail area black. Then I drybrushed steel metallic over it and then… holy crap, it looked like chainmail! It was dark in the crevices and shiny metal on the links. How cool is that!? There are a lot of little moments like this for me in miniature painting – from primer to flat coat of colour, from flat coat of colour to something with three dimensional shading and highlighting, or bringing out textures, or adding weathering, or all kinds of things. This is one of main things that keeps miniature painting appealing and fun to me!

I like sitting and doing activities where I can listen to YouTube videos or watch reruns of old TV shows or listen to audiobooks and not feel guilty about it or like I’m wasting time. I can get something done and have some mindless entertainment at the same time – win! 

Kamp 0824Painting with friends at a local game store. (In the before-times.)

I love painting with friends. It’s similar to watching a show or listening to a book, but even better because I’m talking to friends! I’m not able to do that at home very often even without quarantine issues, but tools like FaceTime and Zoom calls can be a boon. Or even just watching a Twitch show where someone else is painting and you can stop now and then to participate in the chat. (I love to paint while watching the Crow’s Nest, it’s like hanging out and painting with friends for me.)

I like learning. I like figuring out new puzzles and exploring new challenges. I also like thinking about the challenges of how to teach, and how to share information I have learned with other people to help them learn it more easily and thoroughly. 

I’m happier when I do miniature painting (or traditional art) on a regular basis than when I don’t. I get cranky when I haven’t painted in a while. In the moment I don’t always realize that’s why I’m cranky, which is kind of unhelpful, but when I look back over a span of time there’s a clear pattern of being happier when I’m working on art regularly than when I’m not.

So how do I use this information? 

It is very helpful to know that I’m happier if I regularly work on art and that I enjoy getting into the zone during the process. I remind myself of this to create motivation to sit down and work on something. It is much more reliable and effective than waiting for fickle ‘inspiration’ to strike. It makes painting and art activities appealing options when I’m feeling down. It also helps me keep things lower stakes. If I don’t have a great idea for what to draw/paint, who cares? I can just draw a cup or a lemon or whatever I see in front of me right now, or I can just slap some paint on a few monsters for our Dungeons & Dragons games.

Desk fullA tumbler of tea and an episode of Reaper Twitch make painting much more fun for me!

If I’m dreading getting back to the table, that’s a sign that maybe I’m not including enough of the activities I enjoy. I might need to make a plan to Zoom call with friends, or take a break from an intense project and work on something where I can have a few quick moments of transformation. Or even just work on a different part of that miniature for a while.

I can use media to motivate me to get to the table and stay there longer. I can pick out an audio book or TV show or something that I really enjoy, and only consume that while I’m painting. So if I get really into a story, I’ve gotta sit down and paint to find out what happens next! 

Portraits combo2I studied what I did wrong and then tried again.

The fact that I like to learn (and teach) has helped me reframe how I think about projects that don’t work out as I’d hoped or expected. That isn’t failure, that isn’t me being stupid or useless. That is data from an experiment I can use to improve the likelihood of success in future attempts. It’s something I can learn, and analyze and use.

I hope that you’ll take some time to think about what you get out of the process of painting miniatures, and how you might apply that knowledge to make your hobby time more productive and enjoyable for you!

2 thoughts on “Why do You Paint Miniatures?”

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