Attitude Adjustment

If you like the work I do on this blog, please consider supporting it via my Patreon.

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

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

If you like the work I do on this blog, please consider supporting it via my Patreon.

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.

Inauspicious Beginnings: Painting Spanish Part One

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Sometimes a journey of learning begins with great enthusiasm and an ambitious roadmap of goals. Sometimes it begins with faltering steps and only the vaguest idea of a direction to head. In March 2017 I began an adventure of learning in a pretty lacklustre way. The journey continued throughout 2018, but it also continued to be fairly unfocused and haphazard.

As 2019 has progressed, I’ve been finding more pieces of a map. By sharing thoughts about learning how to paint miniatures better on this blog, I’ve also discovered ways to be a better learner myself! In hopes that it might help someone else, I thought I would share some moments from my journey, both the successes and the failures. Today I’m sharing the not very noteworthy beginning.

Orc painted at Sergio class in April 2018How it began. Not great.

I rarely have the opportunity to choose classes I take at conventions based solely on my topic interests at the time. My interests certainly come into play, but the options available to me have to work around my own schedule for teaching. At AdeptiCon 2017, it worked out that I was able to take several classes with talented Spanish painters. My first class was a hands-on with Big Child Creatives. Sergio Calvo Rubio was with them then and provided the painting demonstration, and Jose Manuel Palomares Nunez provided additional explanation and translation, as well as helpful feedback on our attempts. 

This was not at all a successful class for me. I was struggling to understand the principles, and naturally that made it challenging to try to apply them hands-on. Jose wasn’t quite sure what to make of my attempt, and neither was I. I’m sure it didn’t help that the class started at 10pm after what was a long day for all of us, but where other students seemed energized and excited by what they were learning, I just felt lost.

The next day, I had a class with Raffaele Picca, another Spanish painter. This class was a demonstration of his painting approach. Being a demonstration, it allowed me to just focus on what he was doing to try to understand it. I’m sure it also helped that I took this class earlier in the day, before my old brain was tired out.

On the last day of the convention, I had another class with Sergio and Jose. This one was also a demonstration. So Sergio and Jose had time to demonstrate and explain the painting process much more thoroughly and cohesively. The figure was passed around at the end of each major stage so I was able to take work-in-progress pictures of the process. People tend to have a very strong preference for hands-on classes, but there are a lot of valid reasons to consider attending demonstrations. If a painter’s process is quite different from what you normally use, it is helpful to see it in an overview before attempting to apply it yourself. I felt like I had a much better understanding of what Sergio and Jose were teaching after this class than in the hands-on one.

Sergio goblin 400Sergio’s demonstration figure from one of his classes at AdeptiCon 2018.

I also lucked out in that final class. They gave the figure away to one of the students, and I was the lucky one! So I have been able to use it for reference as I study this approach in more detail.

While I enjoyed the class better, it wasn’t a magic moment that turned into me knowing exactly what and how to proceed with studying this approach or the Spanish style in general. Mainly what I grasped was that both painters advocate working in a similar big picture first, small details later way. Many people in the miniature community have been calling this approach ‘sketching’ or similar terms. It’s also a concept that most of the traditional artists I’ve been studying advocate. Traditional artists often describe it as working from general to specific.

Working general to specificAn example of working general to specific from an oil painting workshop I took recently. 

The basic idea of working general to specific in traditional art is that in the early stages you should concentrate on getting the correct proportions and placement of the general shapes before you start refining, and definitely before you start adding any sort of detail. Look at the picture on the far left and then compare it to the others later in the process to the right. The area of light on the chin and the shape of the forehead are different in the first picture. The light area of the nose is shorter. If I had started to put in the deep shadows and bright highlights on the nose before fixing that shape, I would have had two choices when I noticed the problem later – leave everything as it was to preserve the time I had put in but have a less correct painting, or fix it and lose all that time I had put into painting the details. It makes a lot more sense to work on getting all of the big stuff right first.

Sergio sketch stagesSergio Calvo Rubio sketch stages from a class at AdeptiCon 2017.

Painting miniature figures does not involve drawing overall shapes, but the idea of working general to specific can still be applied. You can see an example in the figure above, which is the figure Sergio Calvo Rubio painted in the demonstration class I took with him and Jose Manuel Palomares. In the first step, he’s worked out the colour for all the main area of the figures, and the colours he plans to add to them to create highlights. He’s also worked out the broad area of highlight and shadow placement. This was in the first 10-15 minutes of the class. Applying all of the paint colours and working out the big picture location for shadows and highlights in this way allows him to test a lot of his concept for the figure with a pretty minimal investment of time and effort. If one of the colours doesn’t fit or something looks off about the lighting, it’s just a few minutes of time lost in fixing it.

Then he proceeded to add more highlights and refine his overall vision for the figure. This was a two hour class. Jose was providing much of the explanation, but with time taken to pass the figure around, I’d say Sergio painted for only a little more than an hour to get to the end point pictured above. (Only on the front of the figure as shown, granted.) That would be a fine stopping point for a tabletop miniature. If he intended it as a display miniature, he could spend as much time as he wanted refining the blends and textures and adding fine details. So it’s also a great system for painting within a tight time limit or to a desired level of finish. 

Raffaele Picca class demo figureRaffaele Picca demo figure from a class at AdeptiCon 2017. My pictures are even more terrible than the usual convention class pictures and don’t do his work justice.

The other painter I took a class with at AdeptiCon used a similar approach in terms of working out the big picture of light direction and shadow/highlight placement before refining and working on details, but Raffaele Picca used different techniques to get there. Sergio Calvo Rubio does all of the early and mid sketching and refinement with a standard brush. He uses an airbrush only in the final stages of painting to smooth blending transitions and unify his lights and shadows. Raffaele used an airbrush to lay in the broad sketch of the lighting and highlights and shadows, and then refined and added detail with a brush. Sketching is an approach to how to add colour and contrast to the figure. There isn’t just one technique you can use to explore doing that.

Taking these classes did not transform my painting overnight. I didn’t fly home full of enthusiasm to start slapping paint on minis in whole new ways. These painters did expose me to new ideas, but they were planted as tiny seeds. I had to nurture them, and then once they sprouted a little, take some time to observe them to figure out how to get the most out of them with the way I paint.

This was a not particularly noteworthy beginning. In future chapters I’ll explore where I went from here.

Figures, People, and Events Referenced in This Post

Now is a great time to start planning to attend AdeptiCon 2020! Read more about why I recommend the convention here. (The Crystal Brush contest is no longer continuing. Next year AdeptiCon will host the first US Golden Demon contest in some years.)

The orc in the first picture is from the Storm Coast Marauders fantasy football team, but I don’t seem to be able to find it online, so I’m not sure it’s available for purchase currently.

The goblin is Bocanegra the Little Tyrant.

Big Child Creatives has lots of other cool figures for sale in their shop.

Sergio Calvo Rubio’s webpage

Raffaele Picca’s webpage.

I don’t have any information on the figure from the Raffaele Picca demo. Sorry!

Lessons Learned from 2D Art: Part Two

If you like the work I do on this blog, please consider supporting it via my Patreon.

Recently I took a two day workshop on portrait painting in oils. With only four students, it was an intimate and intensive class. It was also an opportunity to make some observations about teaching, learning, and various types of students that are relevant to miniature painters, too.

Knowing is only HALF the Battle

Those of us who are more left-brain learners tend to overemphasize the value of study type learning. We figure if we just watch enough videos and read enough tutorials, we’ll grasp the concept and understand the techniques needed to execute it, and then we should be able to sit down and just get ‘er done. So when we feel nervous or doubtful about trying the new thing, we may tend to seek out more and more videos and tutorials and forum posts in an attempt to feel we’ve mentally mastered the topic. Or if we sit down and try the new thing and the attempt goes poorly, we get very frustrated and beat ourselves up for not learning well.

A study approach might work pretty well for learning history or science or other fact-based subjects, but when you’re learning a skill that has a physical component, intellectual study can only get you so far. And where it gets you probably isn’t even fully half of the battle. There’s no substitute for hands on practice. There is no way to avoid the fact that you are going to make mistakes and it’s going to be slow going working on something new. You will get further and get there faster the better you are able to accept that reality.

Desk area 800Step 1: Apply butt to chair.
Step 2: Learn

Watching videos and reading about painting is great fun when you’re not in a position to sit down and paint. If you’re in a situation where you have a choice between sitting down to practice and watching another video, push yourself to sit down and paint. You will learn a lot more from the butt in the chair practice. Even if the attempt goes very poorly, it gives you experience to draw on the next time you do study a video or text tutorial.

That’s not to say that your left brain analytical skills can’t help you learn something artistic like miniature painting! Put those skills to work analyzing and comparing your work to examples of the technique or effect that you’re trying to master. Figure out the differences between them, and you’ll have a map to follow to try to get closer to where you want to be Look at work you like and figure out what about it you like. Look at more intermediate level work and try to identify specific flaws and successes. The more you train your eye in this way, the better you’ll become at analyzing your own work for issues and potential solutions.

I’ve been watching videos and studying art related topics for three years now, but I learned more about oil painting in those two days of hands-on guided experience than I have from any video. My general art study was a great foundation, but I had to struggle with mixing the paint and goofing up the brushstrokes to start learning those skills on a physical level. And I had to be patient and kind with myself and accept that I was going to be a lot slower than instructor OR the students who were more familiar with the materials.

Portraits combo3These pictures were not drawn in the order you imagine. I didn’t just figure out how to draw a face a bit better and never goof up again.

Knowing is only half the battle in another way, as well. You might intellectually know you need to paint with more contrast, or maybe you’re trying to improve your ability to do smooth blending. Sometimes you’ll finish a miniature and see that you’ve made progress towards your goal. Then the very next figure you paint might feel like a big step backwards. Remember that your hand and your eye have to learn how to do the thing as well as your brain. And you have to stay very conscious about it when you’re working on something new or trying to change a habitual way of painting. If you zone out listening to a movie or talking to friends, you will more likely than not slip back into your comfortable old painting habits. You can’t expect to paint one miniature ‘right’ and then you’ve just gotten it and you can go into auto-pilot mode and get those same results.

Multipass… er Multitask

Trying to do a bunch of new things at once is hard! Trying to do a bunch of anything at the same time is hard. If you can find ways to split something up into separate tasks, it can be very helpful to increasing your chance of success. On the first day of the workshop, we did something similar to what I discuss in my hands-on how to paint contrast post – we used a limited palette of colours and concentrated on blocking in the main areas of light and dark, and then refining from there. We started with a series of quick lighting exercises in the morning, and then working on one longer pose painting in the afternoon. I’m new to oil painting, so I was still juggling a few things as well as trying to deal with painting slower, but for the most part I felt like I had a handle on things and was grasping the idea.

Value exerciseThe quick lighting exercise from day one of the oil painting workshop. It was challenging but manageable. (Though because I was concentrating on a number of things at the same time, I repeated a common error of make of the nose/center of the face being too long.)

On the second day, we repeated the quick lighting exercises in the morning, but with the addition of trying to see and incorporate as much colour into our painting as possible. I’m still working to see the kind of subtle colour variations practiced artists can see in surfaces. I’m still working on colour mixing on the fly, and on how best to apply a lot of colour to a canvas. Trying to do all of that at speed and while still maintaining the light/dark value system we worked on the day before, and having a completely new angle of the model… that was a lot going on at the same time, and I had moments of feeling like I was drowning. (I flashed back a little to the workshop I took with Alfonso “Banshee” Giraldes, and what I learned there was an additional resource to draw on for these colour studies.)

Colour studyWait, now I have to do the same thing but with lots of colours I can barely see?! The quick lighting exercise on day two was much more challenging for me.

As we started working on the long pose in the afternoon, I made the conscious choice to narrow my focus. I decided to concentrate on the ‘drawing’ (getting the shapes and proportions correct) and the values while I had an experienced instructor available to correct me. Colour is something that can be layered over a value scale painting. There are ways to do this on miniatures, and it’s an even more accessible approach in oil painting on canvas. Colour and mixing it better is something I could work on learning later.

My point in mentioning that is that sometimes when you take a class or workshop, you may not be at a level or mindset to incorporate all of the information being presented. Try to make note of what you can for future use, but it’s okay to focus on the parts that are clicking and sparking your interest. It’s probably better to do that than to try to do everything and barely learn anything.

Colour longMy long pose painting from day two is not very colourful. I chose to continue concentrating on value and drawing.

The Challenge of Experience

In addition to learning more about oil painting, the class was also an opportunity to observe different types of students and learning methods, and to reflect on some approaches that might make it easier to learn a skill. Each of the four students, myself included, represented a different level of knowledge and approach to study.

Student A was quite expert, both in general and in this instructor’s method, having studied with him extensively. Their results were very similar to the instructor’s, and the feedback and guidance they needed was much more nuanced and refined. Some people might have wondered how much value they could get from receiving more instruction, but as I recently opined, there’s always something to learn, regardless of your level!

Student B had not painted in decades, and my guess would be that they did not receive extensive art training at that time. But they were very open to diving in and trying things out, and were very willing to follow the guidance offered by the instructor.

Student C was clearly an accomplished artist with a good deal of training. I suspect they also practice their art frequently. So frequently, in fact, that their issue was that their usual approach and technique was so ingrained that they very easily went into autopilot and did what they always do. Student C’s paintings were well-executed and demonstrated a pleasing style. But at the same time, they also diverged from the method used in the workshop, and they frequently jumped ahead of where the instructor was guiding us. It was clear that Student C wasn’’t really following the instruction all of the time, and thus they probably did not get the full value out of taking the workshop.

Sergio Calvo Rubio teachingBeing a good teacher means doing your best to reach students with different learning styles. Picture from workshop with Sergio Calvo Rubio in Denton, Texas.

I have taken and taught miniature classes with students like Student C pretty frequently. Once some people have a miniature in hand and paint on the palette, they jump in painting just as they would at home. They’ll often be two or three steps ahead of where the instructor has directed. And if the technique or effect of the class is different from their usual method, that causes problems. They end up confused about why they aren’t getting the same results as others, or fall behind as they scramble to redo things.

The tendency of people to jump in and start painting at the first opportunity has affected the way I teach classes. There are some steps where I do not pass paint around to the class until after I have both explained and demonstrated the technique. One example is glazing. I explain it as just enough paint to make coloured water, and then I make a glaze to show the exact consistency. And walk around and show the class. If people have access to the paints, there will be at least one person who will start mixing their own glaze while I’m explaining, they’ll mix it too thick, and they’ll paint over all their hard work from the last hour before I can go through all the information they need to prevent that from happening.

If you’ve been attending classes or trying video/text tutorials with this kind of approach, I recommend you reconsider. Don’t worry about losing your style, and don’t stress about it being uncomfortable. As you continue to practice with it at home, you’ll either get more comfortable with the new methods/tools/approach, or you’ll figure out how to incorporate the bits that work for you into how you usually work. And in the same way, you’ll incorporate the new approach into your style.

A Better Way to Learn

So how should you approach study in a class or workshop, or when you’re trying to learn from an online video or text tutorial? Here are some tips to get into the right mindset and get the most value from your effort.

Ready to learnBeing a good student sometimes means being willing to put aside what you already know and being open to trying new things in new ways. Photo from Fernando Ruiz workshop in Atlanta.

Like a Virgin
No matter how skilled you are, you are working on learning something new. You need to approach it as a new thing. There’s a saying that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. You can’t expect to do things the way you normally do AND learn something new.

Try as much as possible to put aside your current methods and habits. If the tutorial says X brush, get something as close to X brush as possible, don’t use your usual. If it says paint highlights first, paint highlights first, even if you usually paint shadows first.

Slow Hand
One of the challenges I have found as an intermediate/advanced miniature painter is expecting myself to pick something up quickly. I know how to paint, I should be able to get up and running with a new technique pretty quickly, right? If anything it’s the opposite, because my usual way of doing things is so ingrained. I haven’t even spent a full 50 hours oil painting yet. I don’t have muscle memory for handling the brush or mixing the paint or anything else. So it was easy-peasy for me to shift to do something the way the instructor suggested. It was much, much more difficult for Student C to do the same.

Slow is important for another reason. When you’re learning, the best kind of practice is focused, deliberate practice. The auto-pilot of how you usually paint teaches you nothing. You need to slow down, and be very conscious and focused on the task at hand when trying something new to get the full benefit from it. When I’m doing my everyday commission painting, I need to have YouTube videos or an audiobook running. When I’m learning and practicing something new, I need to NOT have those things distracting me so that I stay focused on doing the thing the new way rather than fall back into my usual habits.

Value long comboStep by step pictures from the long value pose on day one of the workshop. This is the same sort of thing people talk about with sketching or blocking in on miniatures. First you work on the correct placement for the broad areas of light and shadow. Then you refine those and working blending. And only as a last step work on details.

Forgive Me
Learning and trying is going to mean failing. No matter how well you focus and follow instructions, there are going to be times where you misunderstand an element or need time to train your hand to paint that way. That’s how learning works! Keep your expectations for yourself realistic. Congratulate yourself for the hard work and effort – it really is as much about the process as the result.

I was very results focused when learning to paint miniatures, and as a result I experienced a lot of mental turmoil if I didn’t do well. This was discouraging and sometimes kept me away from practicing. (Who wants to do something that makes them feel bad about themselves?!) When I started to learn 2D art, I initially had a similar approach. It was frustrating, and I was not learning consistently. Eventually I came to a realization – I enjoyed being in the moment and drawing and painting, even if I hated what the picture looked like at the end of it. I was happier overall when I was drawing and painting regularly than when I wasn’t because of the zen moments of the process. I got value, even from the ‘failures’. I redefined success to be regular practice and sincere attempts to learn rather than what I thought of the end results on the paper. I have been able to study much more regularly and with a lot more pleasure than the results-focused approach I took to miniature painting. 

Take a Look at Me Now
During your study, pause to periodically look closely at what you’re doing. This is best done after taking a brief break where you leave your desk and then return to it. Does your work on the whole look like the example you’re following at this stage of the process? Likewise, once you finish your practice, put it aside for a few days and come back and look at it with fresh eyes. Do you feel like you successfully executed the technique or effect you were attempting?

Value long pose finalIt’s far from perfect, or done, but I’m pretty happy with the result considering my current knowledge and experience level!

If the answer is no, the correct response is not despair! Do not just paint everything over, or start again immediately on another practice piece. Instead, stop and analyze your work and compare it to the example you were following. Try to identify what exactly is different about your work. THIS is where you really start to learn and build your skills. This type of ‘failure’ might ultimately be more instructive than getting it right your first go out of the gate, because it will give you a much more conscious understanding of how to execute the technique/effect.

Key elements to consider are the contrast range (the darkest value compared to the lightest value); where the dark, mid, and light values are placed on the figure; the proportion and size of the dark, mid, and light values; the texture of the surface (clean smooth blending vs large patchy strokes vs fine stipple and/or dash strokes, etc.).

Elements of colour can play into some techniques/effects, but on the whole try not to get too caught up in worrying about colour. If your version is much more vivid or dull in colour than the example, that’s not as important as did you manage smooth blending or creating the illusion of reflected light, or whatever technique/effect you were practicing.

It is unfortunately quite difficult to perform this kind of analysis on our own work. Our hobby in general does not emphasize training of critique skills, and even with those skills it is always easier to critique work by someone else that you have no emotional attachment to or knowledge of. But the more you do it, the better you’ll get at it, and it remains the best way to practice and study.

Here are some tips to help you see your work differently:

Take a photo of it. For best comparison, manipulate a photo of your example in the same ways described below.
Convert your photo to black and white.
Shrink your photo down until it’s the size of a miniature on your screen.
Flip your photo (or look at your miniature in a mirror).

Dds sorceress mirroredIt’s not a whole new view, but it can jog your brain into seeing your miniature a bit differently. The figure is Andriessa, also available in Bones.

I hope that some of you will share your tips for successful learning in the comments! The better we can get at learning, the better we can get at painting!

Lessons Learned from 2D Art: Part One

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If you look at the home page of this website, you’ll see a subtitle of ‘Art in many forms’. My wonderful husband wrote that when he was helping me set up the page. Our expectation was that I was going to be talking about my adventures trying to learn traditional art forms as well as miniature painting. In practice I’ve only talked about traditional art a couple of times. One was a post about measuring your progress at learning a skill by more than just your end result. The other was about artist challenges and prompts.

Random Encounter bust face viewIf you need a miniature fix right now, I posted additional photos of the first bust I ever painted over on my Facebook page.

I have wrestled with whether to include more information about my traditional art study in my blog. I was concerned that it would disinterest people primarily interested in miniature painting. But the reality is that my study of traditional art is having a lot of impact in both how I paint miniatures,  and in how I teach others about miniature painting. Experiencing the struggles of a student again is very helpful to me in learning to be a better teacher. And reflecting on my journey through miniature painting is helping me become a better student of both traditional art and miniature painting.

A week ago I attended an afternoon workshop for alla prima oil painting. Alla prima means to paint all in one go while all the paint is wet, rather than painting in layers or stages. Wetblending vs layering/glazing in miniature terms I guess. ;-> 

Photo by Clemens Schmillen courtesy of Wikimedia CommonsPhoto of a cave painting by Clemens Schmillen courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Early humans used ochres as pigments, and we still do today.

But first the class started with learning a bit more about the paints we were using, and some general colour theory information to help us mix the colours we would need to paint the subjects of our paintings. We used a split primary palette, with some additional earth tone colours. Earth tones are reds, yellows, and browns that were originally mixed from minerals and were the first paints. 

Split Primary Palette

The split primary palette we used in the workshop is shown above. On the top row are the primary colours, with a cool version of each on the left, and a warm version of each on the right. Down the left hand side are the three earth tones we had on our palette. You can match earth tones by mixing from primaries, but many artists find it convenient to include a few in their palettes for various reasons. Our palette also included white, but we mixed our own black rather than using a pigment black paint. You can see the mix on the right edge of the paper – ultramarine blue and burnt umber (or burnt Sienna) make a great chromatic black. (A chromatic black is something that mostly looks black or can function as black but is made from colour pigments and might have some colour undertones to it when thinned down. They are less dull than true pigment blacks, but may behave differently in mixes.)

You can experiment with painting miniatures with a similar palette by picking out colours like these from your paint collection. They won’t mix exactly the same way these single pigment artist colours would, but you can do more with them than you might realize. (I’ve written an article with a lot of information about paint and pigments for miniature painters.)

Split primary palette used to paint PromenadeThis is a split primary palette (plus a few extras) that I used to paint the award winning figure Promenade. My very scientific method of colour selection was to pull a warm and cool version of each primary colour from a box full of convention paints. 

I will confess that I got a little impatient with this segment of the workshop. I have been studying colour theory for years. I’ve got a ways to go in mastering the application of the knowledge, but my understanding of the key terms and basic theory is pretty solid at this point. I would far rather have had more time painting, and chafed a bit when student questions caused this segment to go longer than the instructor had planned. 

And yet at the same time, I did learn something – I learned that I really have learned a lot about colour theory! I mention this to give any of you struggling out there some hope. In the early days of study, I struggled to keep terms like hue and value straight in my mind. I had trouble deciding whether a colour was warmer or cooler. It was very difficult for me to determine whether a given brown was really more orange or green or what. I still have plenty of struggles with colours, and more struggles will come in the future, I’m sure. But I was stoked to realize just how much I have learned, and that I am beginning to be able to apply that knowledge in practice. (When we got down to mixing, I had fewer difficulties getting the colours I wanted than I had with my first attempts!)

This moment goes back to stuff I mentioned in that measuring progress post. We have a tendency to focus on what we’re struggling with and what we feel we have not yet learned. We tend to minimize or completely overlook moments of mastery in things that we have successfully learned. If you’ve been painting for more than a few months, I guarantee that there are things you do with ease or even unconsciously now that were a struggle or required immense concentration for you when you first started. You have learned, and you have succeeded. Give yourself credit for that!

Colour wheelThere is a lot of useful colour theory reference material on a simple Pocket Color Wheel!

I also learned something that will be useful to trying to teach people about colour in the future. The instructor had a simple and effective way to think about which primary colours to use to mix the most vivid secondary colours. When using a split primary system, you have a cool and a warm version of each of the primaries. So you have a greenish yellow and an orangish yellow, an oranger red and one that’s more violet/magenta, and a warmer blue that has a touch of yellow in it, and one that is more purple and has a touch of red in it. To mix the most saturated version of each secondary, choose the primary closest to it on the colour wheel. So for orange, you would want your warm red rather than one which is more magenta/violet, and your warm yellow rather than one that has a hint of green.

Finally we got down to painting! And then I was fully a student, struggling to learn and apply each of the stages in a very short amount of time. I think we had maybe an hour and a half of painting time. That’s not a lot of time to mix colours, draw out the subject, and slap paint on everything. Though plenty of the people in the workshop got further along than I did, so I guess I’m just as slow in other forms of painting as I am at miniature painting! A lot of the issue is that I’m still learning to draw, so getting things remotely in proportion and correctly placed and so on takes time and concentration on top of the issue of learning to manipulate paint. Things go slower when you’re learning and when you’re focused. But you learn more when you slow down enough to focus and really concentrate on what you’re doing. So take it easy on yourself if you find that’s what you need to do with new miniature painting skills.

Painting from alla prima workshop with Heather Hartman FolksThis is as much of the painting as I was able to complete during the workshop. Thanks to the miracles of science, this painting was made with water-soluble oils, which were applied onto paper treated to accept oil paints. Science so fun it’s magic!

This experience has also given me a renewed sympathy for students of my miniature painting classes who are racing to get through the hands on portion in 45 minutes while I’m continuing to spew more information in the background. :->

I really enjoyed the approach, and I hope that I’ll have the time (and more importantly the focus) to sit down and practice with it. I’m debating finishing up the painting since I took a reference photo. I’m okay if I don’t do that, though. It’s okay to do some things for practice. We don’t have to make a finished piece out of every single thing we work on to get value out of the piece and the time we put into it.