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!


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.

Go Beyond the Kit

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Beyond the Kit is the name of my new video live stream show on the Reaper Miniatures Twitch channel! Episodes will also be archived on Reaper Miniature’s YouTube channel. Beyond the Kit airs live on Mondays from 2-4pm Central time starting on May 24, 2021. Episodes are available for Twitch on demand viewing for two weeks, and are uploaded to YouTube a few days after airing.

Paint case openCome with me beyond the kit!

Part of the inspiration for the name is that I am the author of the current generation of Reaper Learn to Paint kits. I crammed as much information as I could fit into the kits, but there wasn’t a lot of space to talk about how to take the techniques or paint recipes from a kit or a class and make them your own. That’s the thread that will weave through many of my episode topics – how do you go beyond the kit, or the video tutorial, or beyond the tips you’ve read online and start learn how to figure things out for yourself?

The medium of video allows me to explore some of these ideas in a hands-on visual way. I’m also excited about the immediacy of exchanging ideas with viewers via the chat. I hope you’ll check out the show and see if it’s something you might enjoy. My interests in miniature painting and teaching are pretty diverse, so I expect episodes will encompass a wide range of topics of interest to different levels and types of painters.

Please be assured that there is still a lot in this vein that I want to continue to discuss right here with words, and pictures, and ideas. In fact, let’s talk about some ideas for how to move beyond the kit right now, with a few examples from my own painting experience. I’m also working on a more detailed article with an example of how to ask yourself the right questions and perform tests to get the information you need to improve your painting experience.

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I think many of us approach miniature painting in a similar way to something like cooking. We start with some basic instruction and simple recipes, like one of the Learn to Paint kits or similar instructions from a friend/video. As time goes by, we see something that looks tasty, and we try to get our hands on the recipe to try it ourselves. What technique did the artist use? What exact paint colours and brushes? We gather up as much of that information as we can, and try to replicate their results. We memorize the recipes we like the most or find the easiest to make, perhaps customizing a little by swapping an ingredient or two.

There’s another level of cooking. The kind that generates new recipes or reverse engineers how to make your favourite restaurant dishes. These cooks learn general principles of how best to prepare various ingredients, and which flavour profiles pair together nicely. They have a foundation of knowledge to help guide their efforts, but they still have to experiment to successfully recombine ingredients together and create new recipes. Undoubtedly a lot of those experiments fail. Some spectacularly, some in more mundane ways. Those that seem promising require iteration and refinement to perfect into a successful replicable recipe.

Miniature painting is kind of like cooking in this regard. Many painters look online for techniques to paint wood or marble or whatever other texture. They look for colour recipes for blond hair or red cloth. They ask for advice about the best colour to use to wash or shade this particular paint. You can learn a lot this way! I’ve looked for a lot of information like this, and I try to repay the miniature community’s knowledge bank by sharing my colour choices and other information. If you’re happy painting in this manner, that is great! That is absolutely how I cook. (At best!)

However, if you sometimes get frustrated with this approach to painting, you might want to pursuing learning a little more in depth and shifting how you think about your tools and techniques.You might want to learn more about the properties of colours and principles of colour theory instead of following the recipe of other people’s colour schemes. You might want to try to figure out for yourself how to simulate a particular kind of fabric or plastic, or explore effects from the real world or other art forms. Maybe you just want feel more confident making your own decisions about what colours to use for washes. In ways small or large, there may be ways that you want to be figure things out for yourself.

Velvet research crA few years ago I wanted to paint the texture of crushed velvet on a figure. I began by studying reference pictures of the fabric both worn as clothing and plain fabric swatches. I came up with a paint approach I thought would work, and tested it on a figure.

I think the most important step you can take to move beyond the kit is simple. And free! But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. That step is to reconsider your attitudes about failure and success. It’s also very helpful to try to find ways to reframe the questions you ask and figure out how to explore those answers on your own.

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Idea #1: You Can’t Out-Study Failure or Risk

Most of us spent a lot of time in school learning facts and knowledge. We may have a very study-based approach to learning. Our experience has been that if you read/watch/think about the subject enough, you’ll memorize enough facts and internalize enough ideas  to be able to pass a test, or write a great essay.

That is not how skills with a physical component work. You can’t watch videos or read articles and learn how to throw a perfect pass or handle the steering wheel of a car. You have to get out on the field or in the driver’s seat and practice. The same thing is true of miniature painting. Studying what other artists do can be very helpful, but you will make a lot more progress with a little study and a lot of painting than you will with a lot of study and a little painting.

Velvet painted crThe next step in my crushed velvet experiment was to try it on my intended figure. My first attempt is on the left, and represents several hours of applying paint. It’s not bad, but it doesn’t look quite right. I had to compare to my references and identify what was different, and then think about how to better represent what I saw in my painted version. My revised attempt is on the right. The fact that I am an experienced painter who knows how to paint textures was helpful, but it did not mean instant automatic success.

You will never be able to watch enough videos or read enough articles to ensure that the first time you try something you will get a fantastic result and know how to do that thing well every future time you try. It just doesn’t work that way. Beating yourself up for getting a poor result when you do try something new or try to push the boundaries of something you know how to do does not make you more likely to succeed in the future. It only makes you less likely to want to even try.

The way to learn a skill like miniature painting is to sit down and do it. Sometimes you’ll get great results, sometimes not so great. Success is not the outcome. Success is doing the work and trying to learn from your experiences.

I have written some additional tips about embracing failure, and also about unhelpful attitudes to try to root out of your hobby.

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Idea #2: Think Like a Scientist

Although I said you can’t study your way out of failure, be assured that the left-brain analytical skills you may have learned in school are not useless to miniature painting! They can be immensely helpful. Often you just need to reframe the way you’re thinking about things. That can involve figuring out the right questions to ask, and/or conducting tests and experiments.

One way to think like a scientist is recalibrate your mindset about trying new things and experimenting. Experiments are not pop quizzes where you pass or you fail. The results of experiments may be surprising. Often they may not be the desired results. But the nature of the results doesn’t make the scientist a success or a failure.

Whether it was a wild success or a dismal failure, the results of an experiment are always useful information. If you study the results and what you did, you will get ideas for ways to adjust the experiment and try again. Sometimes the failures can be more instructive than the successes. Sometimes the failures can even give you ideas for how to do something completely different than what you were trying to do! Viagra was initially developed as a drug to treat angina. The man who invented acrylic paint was trying to invent a glue. Your attempt to try a certain technique for smoother blending may not work well for you for that function, but maybe those streaky results would be a great technique to use apply to weathering and mud stains! 

IMG 0915Left: Some of the colour tests I did to choose the paint colours for the Bones 5 Learn to Paint kit.
Right: Colour tests made during painting of the Bones 5 Learn to Paint kit figures.

Even though I had been painting and teaching for a while when I wrote the first learn to paint kit, I didn’t create it by grabbing a handful of colours and slapping on paint on some randomly selected miniatures. I did test mixes of colours to see if I could get the range of colours I wanted. I carefully considered whether the figures I chose were good options for practicing the skills taught in the kit. I painted a test version of each figure to make sure that my overall colour scheme ideas worked. I did tests with paint mixes to see if the black wash for this area worked better thinned with three drops of water or with four.

I also do tests like that all the time in my own painting. I get stuff wrong and need to tweak it all the time in my own painting. It helps a lot to think of that as just part of the process. Sure, sometimes it gets annoying or takes time I don’t have. The fact that I don’t intuitively know all the answers doesn’t make me a bad artist, or a bad person, or bad in any other way. It’s just a challenge to me to find ways to figure out the answers.

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Idea #3: Ask More Questions to Find More Answers

When you work to solve problems or figure things out on your own, I think it is helpful to ask a lot of questions that are specific and detailed.

For example, say you try to paint something to match a reference photo or following someone else’s tutorial and your results don’t look the same. It’s not helpful to say ‘I hate it it looks terrible, I’m an awful painter’. It is much more helpful to look at it and say what are the differences? Where did I place light parts and dark parts in comparison to the reference? Is there a difference in the proportion of the sizes between the dark and parts and the light parts. Are my darkest areas as dark as the reference or are they darker or lighter? Is there a texture that is noticeable?

Perez nmm attempts crAfter watching the tutorial video from his Patreon, I attempted to copy the style of non-metallic metal on Arkaitz Pérez’s Uther bust. My first version (left) wasn’t terrible, but it also didn’t look quite right. I analyzed and compared my results, got some opinions from a few painting friends, and then tried again. The second version (right) is a lot closer. Feel free to test your eye and try to spot the differences.

A couple of years ago I spent some time doing some experiments and following tutorials of a couple of Spanish painters – Sergio Calvo Rubio, and Arkaitz Pérez. I am an experienced painter conversant with several different painting techniques. My first attempts in both cases were not successes. It wasn’t necessarily that my results looked terrible, but they were different from my inspiration material in ways that demonstrated I had not grasped some of the main points of the instruction. I want to emphasize this point – my goal wasn’t to get an attractive result. My goal was to understand and internalize an approach. So even though I got an attractive result with practice on the following figure, I painted that section completely over to practice again with the approach I was trying to learn.

Anushka comp crI painted this figure after taking a weekend workshop with Sergio Calvo Rubio. I wanted to practice the approach he had shown us. My first attempt (left) had an interesting worn leather look. But I had not really painted in the style from the workshop. I painted it over completely again to get the roughed in sketch version (centre), and then once I was happy with that refined it for the final version (right).

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Keep your eye on this blog and on my Twitch show Beyond the Kit for more information now how to ask questions and do experiments and tests to answer questions and expand your techniques. In the meantime, you might enjoy this suggestion for how to study a face painting tutorial. Or my video analysis of something I painted that I didn’t like.

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Miniatures in this Post

Two of the Learn to Paint kits I’ve written are available.
The Castle of Deception Female Mage is available in metal.
I believe the medieval dancing woman is out of production.
The Battleguard Golem is available in Bones plastic or metal.
Anushka, Female Fighter is available in metal. 

Many thanks to Gene Van Horne for the Bird with a Brush character and Ron Hawkins for the Beyond the Kit graphics.

Photo of woman wearing crushed velvet by Tiffany Combs on Unsplash.

Paint Along Video Learn to Paint Kit Classes!

Dear mini painting friends – I need you! I need you to help us discover new mini painting friends!

ReaperCon Online is a fun event for miniature enthusiasts. It’s also a unique opportunity to reach out to future miniature enthusiasts – people I couldn’t easily connect with at a traditional convention. To take advantage of that opportunity, I will be teaching free live paint along classes for both of the Reaper learn to paint kits – Core Skills and Layer Up. This is a great opportunity to get started with miniature painting for those who might prefer video instruction, or who are nervous to paint for the first time on their own.

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The problem is, how do I reach these new potential miniature painters when my audience is established miniature painters? My answer is to ask all of you for help! I’ve noticed a lot of people mentioning giving the learn to paint kits to others as gifts. If you gifted someone a kit or know someone who purchased one for themselves but hasn’t started painting yet, please send them the link to this page in case they’re interested in attending an event.

If you’d prefer to share on Facebook, here’s a Facebook event for Core Skills, and another for Layer Up.

If you or your friend have already used the kit, you are still very welcome to attend! You can just watch to get extra tips,  work along with us to touch up your original figure, or get a second copy from Reaper to paint along using your other kit supplies. Link to buy a Skeleton Archer (or a Warrior Skeleton Archer), link to buy Anirion the Wizard.

If you or your friend haven’t bought a kit because you already own all or most of the contents, you are still welcome to join us to paint along! A contents list for each kit is available, so you can check if you’re missing anything. The only item you cannot purchase separately is the instruction booklet. (Reaper has said they will not make that available for separate purchase, sorry.) Check the class descriptions below for a short list of common household items you also need to paint along in the class.

NOTE: The Skeleton Archer that is normally included in the Core Skills kit is temporarily out of stock. When this happens Reaper fulfills the kits with this Skeleton Warrior Archer. I will demonstrate with copies of both figures in the online class.

NOTE: The synthetic brushes included in both of the kits are also temporarily out of stock. Feel free to use your preferred brushes. For Core Skills you’d need a general painting brush and a smaller flat for drybrushing. For Layer Up you’d need a general painting brush and any brush you like to use for more detailed painting.

Which Kit First? 

The two kits are designed to work individually, but also work together as one large master kit with no duplication of tools, colours, or figures. You do not need to finish the Core Skills kit or class to attend the Layer Up class (or use that kit), but if you are completely new to painting and can choose only one, I recommend Core Skills first.

Kid Friendly?

The classes are probably a little too structured for younger or more energetic children to really enjoy, and even some older ones might find it a bit dull. I will be doing my best to make the paint along classes as easy to follow as possible, but I’m not a parent or particularly practiced at working with children, and most of the audience that I’ll be working with will be teens and adults. If you do want to try one of the classes with your your child, I recommend Core Skills. I also recommend that you sit with your child and be available to help them if they have trouble with any of the steps during the class.

Tish Wolter is a parent and has had experience teaching children. She is teaching two classes for younger painters during ReaperCon Online, one for beginners and one for kids who’ve had some experience painting. Go to the registration page and select the name Tish Wolter in the drop down menu on the right to easily find these classes. They’re also free!

Skeleton combo

Core Skills Learn to Paint Kit Paint Along

Saturday, September 5, 2020
14:00 – 16:00 Central time

Registration link – it’s free!
(Use the drop down menus on the right and select the name Rhonda Bender to find the class more quickly.)

Link to buy a kit or check the contents list.

If you’ve got a copy of the Core Skills learn to paint kit but you’ve never gotten around to using it because you’d prefer video rather than text instructions, now’s your chance! Rhonda Bender, the author of the kit, is hosting a paint along class. She will take you through the process of painting the skeleton figure, and demonstrate the techniques of painting base coats, washes, and drybrushing.

If you want to paint along during the class, you will need the paints and brushes provided with your kit, and the skeleton miniature. (If you already painted that one you can swap in another skeleton figure you might have lying around or order another copy of 77018 Skeleton Archer.) If you can, prior to the class scrub your skeleton with some dish soap and rinse well, or dip it in isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol to clean it off and help the paint adhere better.

You also need:
* An old mug or plastic cup filled with water to rinse out your brushes.
* Some paper towels.
* A plastic or foam plate, clean plastic lid, or piece of sturdy parchment/baking paper to use as a palette.

These items are not required but you’ll find them helpful:
* An empty paint bottle (item 8702 Master Series Squeeze Bottles on the store.)
* A holder for your figure. (See page 6 of the booklet for ideas.)
* A hairdryer in case your paint is drying too slowly to keep up with the class.
* If you can, an extra lamp or two to make sure you can see well.
* A piece of printer paper with text on it, or paper junk mail. (Plain not shiny paper.)

Wizard combo

Layer Up Learn to Paint Kit Paint Along

Sunday, September 6, 2020
18:00 – 20:00 Central time

Registration link – it’s free!
(Use the drop down menus on the right and select the name Rhonda Bender to find the class more quickly.)

Link to buy a kit or check the contents list.

If you’ve got a copy of the Layer Up! learn to paint kit but you’ve never gotten around to using it because you’d prefer video rather than text instructions, now’s your chance! Rhonda Bender, the author of the kit, is hosting a Layer Up! paint along class. She will take you through the process of painting the wizard figure, and demonstrate the techniques of painting base coats, layering, lining, and glazes.

If you want to paint along during the class, you will need the paints and brushes provided with your kit, and the wizard miniature. (If you already painted that one you can swap in another figure you might have lying around that is wearing a cloth robe or cloak with rounded folds like in the picture above, or order another copy of 77068 Anirion the Elf Wizard.) If you can, prior to the class scrub your wizard with some dish soap and rinse well, or dip it in isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol to clean it off and help the paint adhere better.

You also need:
* An old mug or plastic cup filled with water to rinse out your brushes.
* Some paper towels.
* A plastic or foam plate or clean plastic lid to use as a palette.

These items are not required but you’ll find them helpful:
* A holder for your figure. (See page 6 of the booklet for ideas.)
* A hairdryer in case your paint is drying too slowly to keep up with the class.
* If you can, an extra lamp or two to make sure you can see well.
* A piece of printer paper with text on it, or paper junk mail. (Plain not shiny paper.)

Attitude Adjustment

If you like the work I do on this blog, please consider supporting it via my Patreon or a Ko-fi tip.

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.

Anhurian front 600My 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.

Arilynn front 600I 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.

Crane back fullFreehand! 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!)

Ladydarkness face fullPerhaps 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.)

Treat front fullThis 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.

Vamp bl frontWhereas 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.

Cersei frontAgain, 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.

Sophie black frontI 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.

Hero frontMy 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.

Cold frontThis 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.

Liw face lgThis 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

Franc Jeanunoir is available in metal.
The female Vendel Personality from 7th Sea is out of production, but occasionally available in after sales.
Druss Darkblighter is available in metal.
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.

I Want You to Fail

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Last year I posted some suggestions for hobby resolutions, including tips for dealing with time and space issues, and also talked about how to make more successful resolutions. (Spoiler alert: concentrate on your behaviour, not end results.)

This year the hobby resolution that I’m suggesting to you is: FAIL MORE

26 Recipes That LOOKED Good Ended Epic Fail Featured

Stay with me a minute here!

Many years ago I went skating at the roller rink and took a good tumble. A man paused by me for a moment and suggested that I should learn how to fall. At the time and for some years after that struck me as such a crazy thing to say. Falling is something you don’t plan, it’s literally an accident. What kind of crazy advice is learn to do it well!? 35 years later, I think I’m finally starting to understand him, at least on a metaphorical level.

I was never more than a barely competent skater, on the roller rink or the ice. I was too afraid of falling. I preferred to play it safe rather than push myself past my comfort level and risk injury. I have often been just as afraid, and just as held back, by fear of emotional injury. Fear of looking foolish hampered me in learning a second language. Fear definitely held back my progress in learning to paint miniatures. As I’ve been working on my journey to learn traditional art forms these past few years, I’m trying to have a different relationship with failure. Accepting failure as part of the process has helped me both in the growth of my skills, but also in what artistic endeavours can contribute to my emotional and mental health.

When you are learning how to do something, when you are striving to get better at something, you are going to fail. The only way not to fail is to never try. That is also the only guaranteed method to never do or learn anything. If you read up on successful people, you’ll see that an awful lot of them talk about how failure is at the root of their success. A lot of teachers and experts on learning tell us that failure is a far better learning tool than immediate success.

Difficulties When Doing Your Own Nails 2

So what I’m actually suggesting for your hobby resolution is: GET BETTER AT FAILING

Or as a mysterious wise man once told me, learn how to fall. If you try something that doesn’t work, or doesn’t quite turn out the way you planned, look at it as a learning opportunity. First, set it aside for a day or three and then come back to it with fresh eyes. It might not be as bad as you think. It might be worse. Either way, really look at it, and think about the process you used to get that result. Try to identify some specific reasons why it doesn’t work. “It’s ugly and I hate it” is just beating yourself up. “I can see brush strokes in paint I wanted to look smooth” or “The way I painted this wood texture doesn’t look natural” are starting points to figure out how to fix the issue or improve in future attempts. Then you can ask yourself some questions to start to make a roadmap for better success. What could you do differently next time to see fewer brushstrokes in your paint? What specific element(s) doesn’t look right about the wood?

Yeah, that may seem a little harder than trying to track down a skilled painter you admire and asking them to tell you how to fix things, or throwing something up on the internet and asking for suggestions. The thing is, a lot of what you’re going to get from that are just guesses. Absolutely it is valuable to study what other people do, to watch videos, and take classes, and ask others to give feedback on your work. But you are the biggest expert on you. You are the teacher you have the most access to. You know the process you use to paint. You know what tools you have at your disposal. You know your goals. Learning how to teach yourself more will get you further, faster, and happier than just about anything else I can think of.

Close enough

It’s advantageous to learn how to learn from your failures at any stage of your miniature painting journey, but at a certain point it becomes crucial. You reach a point where  it’s not about smooth blending or accurately applied texture strokes. It’s not about technique. It’s not about something someone else can easily explain to you in a five minute critique. It’s about applying colour, value, composition, and a lot of other much more complex and more nebulous ideas to your own work. I reached a point where I stagnated because I wasn’t sure what to work on to improve. I knew I wasn’t there, that there were still plenty of flaws in my work. I just hadn’t realized that I was at a stage where what I needed to do was learn how to analyze my work and come up with things to fix and try. Working to learn that has made me much more comfortable with my failures, and has rejuvenated my interest in and enjoyment of miniature painting.

Beating yourself up for failure is counter productive compared to turning failure into a learning experience, but it can be even more harmful than that. We are wired to avoid pain, be it physical or emotional. Fear of failure can keep you from even attempting something. This is as true of miniature painting as it is for skating, or speaking a foreign language, or any number of things. For many years I would often plan to include a freehand element on something I was painting. But then I’d get to the point where it was time to do the freehand, and I’d chicken out because I liked the how the blending looked or how the miniature was going overall. I’d already put so many hours in that I didn’t want to ‘waste time’ doing something that would likely fail and I’d have to redo. Instead I wasted literal years where I could have been building my brush control a lot more quickly as well as adding another tool to my repertoire. 

B7c51b4ee4657ad9f63535048235526e cookie monster cupcakes sheep cupcakes

If it gets bad enough, fear of the pain of failure can keep you from painting outright. After all, if you don’t do something, you can’t fail at it. But you also can’t succeed at it! Or get to enjoy the aspects of it that had you start doing that thing in the first place. 

I think it can help a lot to understand that many of the mistakes we make are at least in some part a result of how the human brain and eyes handle visual information, or are due to conflicts between how different areas of our brain process visual information. In many ways these mistakes are natural, and unavoidable for most people. I hope to talk about some of them in a series of posts in the next few months. In most cases just knowing what the issues are won’t provide an instant fix, but it will help you in making better attempts, and will hopefully help you be kinder to yourself when you fail.

It’s easy for me to say all these positive things about failure, but our culture has a very negative view of failure that many of us have internalized that is hard to fight against. When we fail to achieve the goal we set out with, when we don’t get enough likes and comments on the work we post, when we don’t get the award we aimed for in the contest, or even when we just plain don’t like how the miniature came out, it’s a pretty natural reaction to feel very negatively about that and blame ourselves. I don’t have an easy answer for that. I have some thoughts I’ll try to share over the next year, but you may also find it helpful to consult books or videos from the wider world at large on topics like dealing with failure or how to learn skills more successfully.

So to sum up, my resolution suggestion for you is: Accept that you will fail. Don’t beat yourself up for this inevitable failure. Learn how to use failure as a learning opportunity. 

Bad nmmMy first ‘serious’ attempt at non-metallic metal. It did not go well. I did not take that failure well.

This got a little longer than I expected, so I’ll share my personal experience with failure learning to paint miniatures versus failure in learning to do traditional art in a followup post in a few days.