Improvement is NOT Mandatory

Over the next couple of months I plan to post additional content related to contest feedback and improvement. But first, this very important message:

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You are not required to be able to speed paint great looking figures before you can play a game.

You are not obliged to strive for the next medal/level/prize in order to attend a convention or enter a contest.

You do not have to paint to a certain standard before you can share pictures of your minis.

You do not need to have the goal of improvement to be allowed to participate in or enjoy our hobby.

It may seem strange for me to being saying that, since the majority of the content I write is about to improve your miniature painting. I personally enjoy learning, and I also enjoy helping others learn. That’s my personal niche, but I have never believed that is the only way to enjoy our hobby!

What I do think is critical to getting the most enjoyment out of your hobby is to figure out what you most like about it! That can be harder to do than it sounds. 

We’re surrounded by announcements of contest results, get better quick tips, solicitations for painting lessons, before and after photos, advice for how to improve, and most of all – images from amazing painters who accomplish feats we can only dream of. It’s easy to unconsciously absorb the idea that that’s what all miniature painters should do: work to get better.

Those pressures within our hobby can be magnified by our general cultural attitudes. Dominant Western culture at some point decided that there are certain activities that we actively encourage for all children regardless of their skill level, but which we actively discourage for adults unless they have ‘talent’. Largely these are artistic pursuits – singing, dancing, drawing, and of course – painting. For some reason it’s okay to take up hiking or biking without striving to achieve a particular metric of speed or endurance. Or play video games for fun without ever expecting to join the professional gaming circuit. When we try out an artistic hobby, we (or people around us) often assume that it isn’t for us if we don’t show some immediate ‘talent’ for the activity, or if we don’t become good enough to be able to monetize it.

Amid the dictates of these external ideas and attitudes, we might not have yet discovered what we personally enjoy about our hobby. It can take some conscious thinking to figure that out. I’ve previously written an article with some tips for how to do that, because I believe that:

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Even once you do identify what you most enjoy doing, you need to be mindful that your tastes can shift over time, or can alter temporarily in response to events in your life. I wrote this article suggesting we cut ourselves a break during covid troubles, but it’s useful advice for any challenging circumstance.

If you identify what you enjoy and the activities required to improve are not on the list, that’s okay! It’s okay if determined study and failed experiments are not on the list of things you like. It’s okay if dealing with the stress of contest deadlines and competition isn’t on the list, either. Or maybe you do sometimes like the pressure cooker of striving to do your best and excel in a contest, but right now you have a lot of work/school deadlines and you’re feeling stressed out. It’s okay to just paint for fun and sit this contest season out, or just enter whatever you’ve painted, even if it isn’t the absolute best you could do.

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This advice is not based only on my own experiences. Over the years I’ve had a lot of personal and online conversations with hobbyists of a wide variety. I want to share some of what I’ve observed, because I think some of our frustrations and realizations are much more common than we think. The good news about that is it means we’re not as alone as we think! When I tell these stories in my Level Up classes at conventions, I often have a friend later ask me ‘That observation was based on me, wasn’t it?”, but it’s always the case that whatever they’re asking about was drawn from conversations with multiple people.

I know a lot of people who enjoy and even thrive on painting competitively. Even if you don’t think you’re likely to win, working on a contest entry can encourage you to try that technique or idea you’ve been putting off because you’re a little scared of it. The desire to create something cool that people will stop to look at can inspire tremendous creativity. Just having the deadline of an upcoming contest helps some of us actually just finish something instead of putting off working on it, or stops us from endlessly reworking it.

You do not have to be a top tier painter to paint entries for a contest! You don’t have to have an expectation of winning to enter. The viewers of contest entries often enjoy looking at very different entries than the ones that end up winning. When I hang out near contest display shelves/tables and observe people, the pieces I see evoking an emotional response or that people call their friends over to look at are not only the ones that impress the judges. And that’s great! That is another reason you don’t have to only paint something judges would like to be able to enter contests!

Competition

I’m covering a wide swath of activities under the umbrella of the term competition. I don’t just mean the big contests held at conventions. Many manufacturers hold their own competitions on their websites or Facebook groups or within a larger contest. There are hobbyist created challenges like finishing a war band in a set amount of time or painting a figure a day for a few weeks. There are also shows like the MSP Open which are structured to recognize every entrant for their level of accomplishment and the only person you’re competing against is yourself.

Entering and painting for competitions is not a great fit for everyone all the time, and that’s okay! If you’re currently busy and stressed out, another deadline is may drain more joy than it inspire. Maybe you’d get more satisfaction out of painting a bunch of figures for your game than spending the same amount of time on one best of your ability piece. Participating in a contest can bring up a lot of strong emotions, and sometimes that’s not the healthiest option for us.

To achieve the higher medal levels in a show or paint competitively enough to place in a podium contest requires a lot of study and practice – watching videos, attending classes, reading tips, soliciting and applying feedback, practicing techniques, and then doing it all again. Even those who enjoy that process will go through periods of frustration and failure that aren’t much fun. I know several painters who realized they do not enjoy the competitive treadmill of attending classes, practicing, entering, rinse and repeat. They thought about it and realized that what they do enjoy is painting for games, painting gifts for friends, relaxing with their hobby after work. So they do that now, and they’re very happy in their hobby! They might enter some work into something like the MSP Open, but for fun and to show off their figures, not with the expectation that every year they’ll be awarded the next medal level up from the year before.

I started painting to enter contests very soon after starting to paint, and for many years after. I thrived on the deadlines, and the way contests pushed me out of my comfort zone to try new techniques or create something more imaginative. And then one day I didn’t. It started to feel like something I was obligated to do to establish or maintain my reputation as a ‘pro’ painter. It started to matter to me whether I won or not, which I did not think was a healthy attitude for me. The risk/reward just wasn’t paying off anymore. I was getting a lot more value out of painting good figures for my clients or painting teaching examples than I was from attempting to paint a great figure for a contest. So eventually it occurred to me that maybe I should just do that. So I did, and it’s great. Maybe one day what I enjoy will shift back to more contest oriented painting and that will be great, too, provided I’m making that decision based on what is best for me. (I still enter shows like the MSP Open and Atlanta Miniature Figure Show, because I can enter pieces I’ve worked on for other purposes.)

Everybody needs a hobby

In my mind, quality of output is not what defines the best professional miniature painters and sculptors. The people I think of are those who thrive in the job. I think of Aaron Lovejoy, and how excited he is about painting. He loves to study other artists, figure out how they do what they do, and find ways to implement that into how he works. I think of James Wappel and how he is constantly experimenting and iterating and evolving the way he paints. I think of the putty sculptors I know who eagerly scour through junk shops looking for objects that might create interesting textures, and the digital sculptors who have hours-long conversations swapping tips and tricks.

Now I am not saying that these professionals are always happy doing what they do. No matter how much we love it, if we call something work, it has tough parts! Everyone has periods of frustration, exhaustion, or just not being in the groove. But the professionals I think of as most successful are those who have figured out the aspects of their job that give them joy, and who incorporate those into their working life.

I’ve shared some examples of people who have found more joy in their hobby/job because they have identified what they enjoy and they do that.  I think it may also be helpful to share some examples of people who are less happy.

There are hobbyists who were once quite competitive painters who are no longer able to spend as much time studying and practicing as they used to. They have demanding jobs/schoolwork, or family members who need care. That is not only understandable, it’s commendable to sacrifice hobby time and put those priorities first. Sometimes people choose, consciously or not, to prioritize other leisure activities, and that’s perfect reasonable, too.

Problems arise when people don’t match their expectations to their current actions. I’ve know people who became bitter that they aren’t placing as well in contests, or they aren’t as well known in their favourite hobby communities years after they stopped painting regularly. Even if they maintain their current level of skill, they might feel like they’re falling behind as a competitive painter, because people are constantly pushing the envelope of what is possible at the highest end of our hobby. It’s perfectly understandable to feel frustrated if you aren’t able to do something you love as much as you like! But you’re only making yourself miserable if you dwell on that, or if you expect the same level of the accolades and renown when putting in much less time and effort than you used to.

During the time I was writing this, a video with the message ‘do what you can‘ was recommended to me on YouTube, and I think it has some great advice for any creator. The speaker’s personal interest is sewing, but you can insert painting wherever she talks about sewing (or being a YouTube creator, or running a business) and the advice holds true. I enjoy this woman’s calm, rational approach to challenges and big projects, and I admire that she continues to post on YouTube despite receiving a lot of criticism about her vocal impediment.

12 thoughts on “Improvement is NOT Mandatory”

  1. I really like the message here, I’ve come to a similar sort of realisation over the last few years, after dipping my toes into display/competition painting and making myself try to improve constantly. I stopped having fun painting and then by extension stopped painting. These days I’ve found what I enjoy, decent quality tabletop standard painting, and so that’s what I do. Any improvements I see come not from conscious effort but rather through just doing what I enjoy, being not an end in itself but rather something that happens naturally. I wish I’d figured this out earlier, and glad to see someone spreading that message 🙂

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    1. It seems like it should be obvious that we should do what we like, but I think for a lot of us it just isn’t! I’m glad that you’ve have figured out what you enjoy and that you’re back painting!

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  2. I’m really glad you wrote this blog post, because I struggle with constant pressure (which I created for myself, of course) of constant improvement. I can’t really finish any miniature, because at some point I decide they are too ugly and I need to start from the beginning. Add to that depression and there’s no joy left in the hobby 🙂 but I am slowly learning that some small progress (or no progress!) is enough for me, that there is nothing fun in striving for perfection and improvement.

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    1. I am so sorry to hear that you’ve been struggling that way. That voice in our heads can be hard to ignore. But it is worth trying! I definitely recommend finishing some figures! You have probably made more progress than you realize! It’s hard to see our incremental progress, and it can be really helpful to every now and then take a few of our newest paint jobs and compare them to our oldest to see that there actually has been improvement. That’s one reason I think it’s really important to finish stuff and move on to the next.

      Another reason is that we get a sense of satisfaction when we finish something. Even if we don’t love everything (or anything) about what we did, we can be proud of ourselves for finishing it!

      Maybe it would help to work only on easily available mass market figures for a while? If you paint something you know you can easily buy another copy of, you don’t have to worry as much I think. If it’s not a special edition or discontinued figure, what’s the big deal if it doesn’t come out just right? Just tell yourself that if you get it all wrong by the end, you can get another copy and try again in a few months.

      I aimed for display painting quality from the beginning. Years later I had a few projects that required me to paint with a time limit or a simplicity limit. Did I think the figures looked terrible? Yes! Did I learn a lot from those projects that I could apply to the kind of painting I usually did? Surprisingly, also yes! So you can also try challenges like time limits or limited colour schemes. Sometimes it helps us to get going with something when we have more constraints on the options rather than fewer.

      I think you might find this article helpful as well:

      Half Ass is Better than No Ass

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      1. The “finish stuff and move on to the next” is such an important message and one that took me a long time to adopt. Letting go of something can be pretty difficult. I think some of the experiences that helped me to let go, was sharing painted minis with non-painters. Usually people who don’t paint will just marvel over the painted minis, and won’t notice where I did or didn’t put a ton of effort in. I also remember painting minis for months so I could play a game with the kids. The teens didn’t even pick them up once to look at them. We might as well have been playing with plastic pawns! Those sort of things kind of made me think “What’s the point?!”. So now I mostly paint with the mindset of reaching a ‘good enough’ stage. If I mostly happy (not 100% happy) with the mini, then it’s time to finish it up. I can always try new things and/or improve on the next one.

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      2. And I just partially remembered a quote from an illustrator about ‘there’s a 1000 mistakes in your pencil’. Meaning the first 1000 or so drawings you do are going to suck, so it’s best to just get them over with! Art takes a lot of time and practice, and lots of mistakes are part of that practice.

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      3. That is a great attitude Faust! I’m pretty sure my pencil has more than 1000 mistakes in it, but I’m okay with that. Maybe he meant per pencil. ;->

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  3. I agree completely with you. I’m not a gamer or a competition painter. I like to create diorama’s based on RPG solo roleplays. I try to improve my painting skills but just because I like that.

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  4. Great article! I don’t paint competitively, but the advice rings true for a lot of jobs and hobbies. Painting minis is a hobby for me, that at times can help me de-stress from a long day at work. It’s also something I find fun to share with the family, as they tend to enjoy seeing my artistic side.

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