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:

IMG 0240

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:

IMG 0241

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.

IMG 0242

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

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

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

Competition

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

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

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

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

Everybody needs a hobby

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Practice Painting

Ko-fi tips help keep this content free. Patreon supporters receive PDFs with high res photos.

Is the way you look at your work when you’re trying to study or practice something new different than when you assess your work generally? Should it be? I think the answer is yes! It can be challenging to make that mind shift, but failing to use different metrics to judge our study results means we may not be learning as much or as well as we could.

Banner fullTara the Silent at different stages in the painting process.

In a previous Problem Solving series (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4), I talked through my mental assessments of my work throughout the process of painting a miniature where I was making colour and lighting choices on the fly. My goal for the Tara the Silent figure was to paint a miniature that was as attractive and successful a paint job as I could manage after a bit of a rough start.

When I was painting Anushka, my aim was to practice a new painting approach and demonstrate to myself that I had successfully learned and implemented new information. It may not seem like it on the surface, but that is actually a very different goal than trying to paint a good looking miniature! In both cases I repeatedly reviewed and then revised my paint work. But in each case I was working towards a different goal, and I was using different criteria to judge my success in reaching the goal. 

Anushka comp crAnushka at different stages in the painting process.

I’d like to talk about why it’s useful to approach a study piece differently than general painting, using my experiences painting the Anushka figure as an example. I also want to remind myself about this! I don’t think I do enough focused study like this.

I actually painted Anushka as a study piece in Spring 2019. I edited the WIP pictures and wrote a first draft of this article soon after the painting, but for various reasons it got put aside for a while.

Tsukigoro front 500My painting of Tsukigoro, a larger scale resin figure that we worked on in the workshop I took with Sergio Calvo Rubio.

In the Spring of 2019 I took a weekend workshop with Sergio Calvo Rubio, a fantastic Spanish painter. In addition to his feedback on my figure throughout the workshop, he kindly shared his thoughts on a few other miniatures I had painted. He felt I was a technically proficient painter, but that I wasn’t painting with enough contrast. In particular, I wasn’t painting enough of the small, bright highlights that really help a paint job pop. I have been receiving similar criticism from painters I admire for years! I do try to push for more pop, but in the struggle between a refined result and pop, I find it very challenging to not go overboard refining or smoothing the highlights, which usually dilutes the effect of the pop.

After the workshop, I painted a few practice figures to try to cement what I learned, and to try to figure out how best to apply his approach to the gaming scale figures I paint most often.

Important Note: I will be referencing some of the principles and techniques Sergio teaches in this series, but only insofar as is necessary for readers to understand the gist of what I’m saying. It is not my goal to share all of the material from Sergio’s workshop, and I will not answer questions about his techniques or methods. If you’re interested in learning more about how Sergio paints, I highly recommend checking out his Patreon or his YouTube channel, or attending one of his workshops if you have the opportunity. 

My reference materials when practicing included my notes and practice figures from the workshop and a couple of previous classes I had taken with Sergio at AdeptiCon. I also have the good fortune to have in my possession a couple of demo figures that Sergio painted as examples for classes. This allowed me to take comparison photos of Sergio’s examples and my practice figure, which will also allow you to compare my attempt to his demos so you can make your own assessment of how well my study went.

You can see a few steps of Sergio’s process to paint the figure on the left. There is a video demonstration of how Sergio painted the non-metallic sword on the figure on the right.

Sergio figures fullThese two figures were painted by Sergio Calvo Rubio for class demonstrations.

When I painted Tara the Silent, my goal was to paint as good looking a figure as I could in a fairly tight deadline (for me). My initial colour selection didn’t work, so I got off to a bit of a rough start. Some of painting process involved trying to salvage as much of my previous work as I could, and tweaking things to look as good as possible. So my analysis concentrated on this question: does this look good, or do I need to change or tweak something? I think many of us paint day-to-day with that kind of mindset.

However, I don’t think assessing our work with the question does this look good is a helpful approach to take when to studying something new. Maybe you’re studying a new method, like I was with this figure. Maybe you’re trying to learn a new technique like wet blending or layering. Maybe you want to simulate a texture like worn leather or woven cloth. Maybe you’ve seen a particular colour or overall look on another figure that you like and you want to figure out how the artist did it. In all of those cases, you’re trying to model your work after a specific reference point.

I think the question you need to ask yourself when judging your success with that kind of study is not whether your work looks good, but rather: Does this look like my reference? If not, what are the differences?

If the answer is your work doesn’t really look much like your reference, you need to try to do a deeper comparison between your reference and your practice paint to try to analyze exactly what the differences are. You will likely find differences in the level of darkness and lightness, or in the location and size of the darkest and lightest areas. You might notice differences in shapes and patterns of texture. You might discover that the instructor you’re studying uses paint that is more or less fluid than yours for blending, or uses a different size or shape of brush. Training your eye to spot those differences and training your brain to analyze them more deeply can help you make bigger leaps in your skills than any specific technique.

We are so used to assessing our work by the standard of whether something looks good (enough) and whether we like it (or at least can we live with it) that it can be really challenging to shift how we analyze our work. It’s really easy to fall back into just painting as we always do instead of pushing ourselves to be sure we’re actively learning and experimenting and studying. Even though I’ve spent a lot of time learning, and teaching, I experienced exactly that problem while painting Anushka!

I think it’s entirely possible to paint a study piece that successfully demonstrates your understanding and application of something, but which doesn’t look super attractive, polished, or finished. It really is two different metrics.

An easy example of that is contrast. If you’ve been told you need to push your shadow/highlight contrast, you will likely find that when you try to practice doing that, your work may not look as good to you. The transitions may look rough, or even stark. If you are only looking at your practice piece(s) with the question does this look good in mind, you will feel as if you failed. If you painted darker shadows than usual and lighter highlights than usual, you did not fail, you achieved your stated goal! You might need to continue practicing painting with higher contrast for a while to accustom your eye to it, and then set your next goal to be painting higher contrast with more attractive transitions between values. To ask yourself to apply higher contrast values of paint AND do so with flawless transitions on the first few miniatures you try it with is unrealistic! When you study and work to learn something new, make sure you’re assessing your progress in understanding and applying the something new, not judging every single thing about the figure.

The flip side of that is that you can paint something that does look good but which does not demonstrate that you have understood and applied the thing you’re trying to learn. This is what happened to me while painting Anushka.

Grey divider edit

In the workshop, Sergio had us paint from dark to light. I have very rarely painted this way. Just a few times in other classes I’ve taken, with certain colours like black, and when painting areas that are recessed and hard to reach. The advantage of starting with the darkest colour is that you create your deep shadows and lining with your basecoat. (Assuming you have the brush control to not slop into the crevices, which I have not always had.)

Most of the time when I paint I start with the midtone, then paint the shadows, and then paint highlights. I have found that it is easier for me to identify the correct placement for shadows and highlights with this method. It also makes it easier for me make sure I leave enough of the midtone colour apparent, which is important to establishing the texture and overall colour of the material, and can also help create more contrast.

Another reason I prefer starting with the midtone colour is that I worry that if I start with the darkest shadow colour, I will be more more likely to paint most of the areas in a similar midtone value instead of separating sections of the miniature by starting with different value midtones for each. Even when using the method I’m used to I don’t always get this right, as you can see in the example below.

Erli original cr 1000

One of the reasons the paint scheme on the right is more effective than that on the left is that adjacent areas of the figure differ in the value of their midtones. You can see that more clearly when the picture is converted to black and white as below. A deeper analysis of the differences between these two figures is available.

Erli original cr bw

To better understand and study Sergio’s method, I followed his approach and started with the darkest colours for each area of the figure. I forgot to take the photo until after I had painted the green pantaloons, but it should still show the overall idea.

Anushka wip1a basecoat front fullAnushka painted with the darkest shadow colours for each area.

One of the things that distinguishes many high level paint jobs is a strongly painted light source. Often these are painted with the common light from above direction, but with stronger contrast between deepest shadows and brightest highlights. Others may be painted with a more directional light source shining more brightly on one side of the figure, which creates darker shadows on the other side. Sergio’s usual approach is less fussed about painting a precise light source direction than some high level painters. He aims for more of a stage light effect, as if the figure is standing on stage with a spotlight aimed at them. He paints stronger light and brighter saturation on the figure’s head and the centre of its torso, and uses duller, darker colours on the sides and extremities. He prioritizes creating a strong focal point and making the figure interesting to look at, rather than aiming for a super realistic rendition of the light and shadow.

I mention this because it is a great example of how there is not only one style or approach to painting that is recognized and rewarded in the miniature world. I often see comments from people complaining that only one painting approach gets recognition, particularly after the results of a painting contest are announced. There have been times or specific contests when there may have been a grain of truth to that, but for years now I’ve seen a very diverse range of styles recognized both by contests and miniature enthusiasts. In most contests I’ve seen, the elements that factor into top level recognition include the obvious factor of advanced paint manipulation skills, but also a well developed artistic eye, and the courage to commit to one’s vision. In the case of light, whether a painter is trying to replicate real light source reference pictures or aiming for more of a ‘make it look cool’ illustrative approach, they need to commit to their vision for the light and create a high level of contrast. Painting a high level of contrast while also painting smooth blends, or cool textures (including comic book style), or cel shading or whatever other approach challenges both your hand and your courage.

Please note that I am definitely not saying that there is no point to exploring more creative styles of paint application and/or lighting approach if a painter’s skills are more beginner or intermediate level, or if working on a quicker tabletop piece! I just think it’s helpful to understand that the competition side of our hobby rewards skill of execution as much or more as creativity of concept. The highest level painters have literally spent years studying traditional art and/or learning through experience. It’s not really reasonable to expect that the first few pieces someone tries to paint with an advanced lighting technique or textures or whatever is going to instantly catapult them to gold level.

In the year or two preceding the workshop, I had spent a lot of time practicing painting more directional light. I also focused on portraying my light source both more correctly and more evocatively. One example of that is the way I painted Ziba the Efreeti. I created lighting reference photos and I followed them to the extent of painting the cast shadows on her. What I had been focused on prior to the workshop was in many ways a completely different approach to what Sergio was teaching us, so it was a bit of a mind shift for me.

Grey divider edit

First Study Session

Regardless of your approach to the light, when working on a textured surface (or one you’re painting to appear textured) the goal is to build up both the appearance of the texture AND the placement of lighter and darker areas that will evoke your imaginary light source. I painted the green pantaloons as a smooth cloth texture with a moderate level of contrast. They’re in a low interest area and mostly to the sides of the body, so with Sergio’s approach they shouldn’t stand out particularly. Next up was the top and overskirt. I decided to paint these areas as one piece of clothing, and with a worn leather texture. I decided that, but that’s not what I painted…

Anushka wip2b front full

Anushka wip2 back full

The top ended up looking like a different colour and material than the skirt. That did not have a lot of bearing on the lessons I was trying to learn, so I decided not to worry about it. Sergio’s main critique of my work was that it was technically very proficient, but it did not have enough contrast. In particular, it completely lacked the strong edge and spot highlights that help a figure pop off the shelf/tabletop and grab the viewer’s attention. These are also an important tool a painter uses to draw the viewer’s eye to the key focal points the painter wants them to zero in on.

So how well did I do with the study goals of painting strong texture and using strong contrast to make the figure pop? I did not make this assessment immediately after painting. I waited until the next day. I think it is very helpful to step away from something you’re working on overnight, or at least for several hours. It allows your eyes to reset, and gives your brain a chance to shift from creation mode to editing mode. As you’ll see below, my impressions of my work while I was painting versus my impressions of it the next day were very different!

The top, while painting: I felt like I was really pushing the highlights and going quite bright, and doing a good job concentrating the brightest areas in the centre of the figure’s cylinder as Sergio does. 

The top, next day: Huh, where did those bright pops of highlight go? I swear I worked on them! (And as a side point, I realized that if the back of something is armour, so is the front, so I needed to paint the chest plate area to match the armour sections, not the skirt or the sleeves.)

The skirt, while painting: I think I’m getting a texture that is less fiddly and small than I usually paint for leather. It’s a little darker overall than the top, but since the skirt is on the bottom half of the figure and attention should be focused on the face and upper torso, that should work out well.

The skirt, next day: This texture part looks pretty good. But I almost completely failed to create any overall sense of light or bring out the forms of the different skirt folds.

My assessment of the skirt is an example of the difference in analyzing success in studying something versus success in achieving an attractive result. If this were something I was painting on deadline, I would probably leave the skirt basically as it is and just build up a few more highlights on it to create a little more form. The texture looks pretty good, it photographs well, and it fits the character and colour scheme.

For a piece that was intended a practice of a specific approach, I needed to assess whether I demonstrated that learned and understood the lesson. The way I painted the skirt at this stage did not demonstrate that, so I needed to try again, possibly even repainting the area to start from scratch. (If you are incorporating practice into a project like painting an army, another option is to call it good on this figure and then try again with the next one.)

I also took a moment to ask myself how did I go so wrong with this attempt, and I think those thoughts are worth sharing with you as well.

Fuzzy Goal/Intention
I just sat down and started painting. It would have been a good idea to study my reference figures and photos right before and even while I was painting, so the result I was aiming for was fresh in my mind.

Distractions
I had an episode of a TV show running in the background while I was painting. When I’m doing routine tasks and things I’m proficient at, it is helpful to listen to a video or audiobook. It distracts me if my back is sore or I’m getting bored, and keeps me painting longer. But if I’m trying something new or working on a technique I find challenging, I need to minimize distractions so I can keep my brain actively focused and concentrating on the task at hand.

The combination of those two factors made it very easy to go into autopilot and just paint the way I usually do. Painting on autopilot is useful for routine tasks, but it’s a dangerous trap if you’re trying to learn something new.

For those who might be having difficulty seeing what I’m talking about, here’s the figure I’m working on next to a couple of Sergio’s WIP figures from classes he’s given.

Anushka wip2d comps front full

My practice figure is in the centre. Class demo figures painted by Sergio Calvo Rubio are to the left and right.

Anushka wip2c comps back full

Don’t despair if you’re having trouble seeing everything I’m pointing out. It takes time, practice, and concerted effort to start building your critical eye. There is very little material related to training critique ability in our hobby. I did not have a strong eye at all when I started out, and I know that there is a lot that I still miss. Being conscious of the importance of an artist’s eye and trying to cultivate it has immensely helped me in my quest to improve my painting level, and I am confident it will continue to help me. I wish I had been more deliberate about practicing things I’d learned in classes and workshops and aiming to build up my eye much earlier in my painting career.

Grey divider edit

Second Study Session

For my second attempt, I set my intention and reviewed my examples before beginning to paint, and minimized distractions while painting.

I think I was much closer to goal this second time. I don’t know if it’s perfect by any means. It might even be overly textured, and there is still more emphasis on texture over value and form, but I think it’s better. The form of the skirt in the back view particularly is much more apparent.

Anushka wip3 back full

I thought I should go in and glaze in some more contrast and/or tone down the texture on the skirt, but I decided that it would be best to work on more of the figure and see how it came together as a whole before making that decision. Sometimes one of the hardest things for me in painting is to just let something be until the figure is almost finished and I can assess how the colours, values, and other decisions work together before trying to tweak anything. I find it can save a lot of time if I can resist that temptation! If I am painting one section at a time and trying to make each individual section ‘perfect’ while I working on it, I may end up fixing something that doesn’t need it or applying the wrong fix and end up having to spend more time at the end making tweaks than I would have otherwise.

This is one of the reasons that many artists start with an initial quick sketch of the main areas of the figure before preceding to refining individual areas. That is the approach that Sergio took in his class demonstration goblin figure. He started with the basic colours of the figure, then roughed in some highlights, and then continued to refine them. This approach allows painters to assess the success of their colour choices and overall approach for the miniature after a relatively short investment of time, so they aren’t losing a lot of work if they have to make adjustments.

In the workshop and with Sergio’s demonstration figure on the right in the picture below, he painted section by section, but I suspect this was for teaching reasons, and that it is not his usual approach. It’s easier to talk about the specifics of how to paint non-metallic leather, worn leather, and so on if you paint each section individually.

Anushka wip3 comps front full

My practice figure is in the centre. Class demo figures painted by Sergio Calvo Rubio are to the left and right.

Anushka wip3 comps back full

Grey divider edit

Third Study Session

After finishing up the non-metallic metal and the hat (still trying to adhere to Sergio’s principles), I decided to revisit the skirt yet again. I painted a number of glazes on the skirt. Some of the glazes were lighter colours, intended to bump up the overall contrast in the highlight areas. I also added some orange tones to saturate the colour a little more, and I used some of the same blues I used in the hair in to glaze in more shadows. The overall intent was to build up the value contrast a little more, and tone down the texture. I think it has a bit more of a buckskin hide look now, and the level of texturing is more appropriate to the character.

Anushka wip4 back full

Anushka wip4 comps front full

My practice figure is in the centre. Class demo figures painted by Sergio Calvo Rubio are to the left and right.

Anushka wip4 comps back full

Here’s a compilation photo of the three phases I went through trying to work out how to do the skirt.

Anushka comp cr

Grey divider edit

The Finished Figure

So did I accomplish my goals and successfully study Sergio Calvo’s approach? Let’s take a look at the completed miniature.

Anushka front

I think I did focus attention in the centre of the figure and put a lot of light around the face. I painted a different sort of leather texture than Sergio had, but my practice was focused on how Sergio approaches painting light overall, not that specific leather texture. (That might be a good subject for another practice session, though!

I achieved more pop highlights than I usually do, but still probably not enough.  Also some of the pop is coming from the non-metallic filigree. I’m generally comfortable going up to white on NMM, so that might not be a true test. To be thorough, it would be good for me to paint some additional miniatures with different materials and review how I did with those. In my opinion Anushka is a reasonable success, but I still have work to do to internalize and consistently apply the approach. What do you think?

Anushka back

Here are some comparison pictures with the reference figures. Note that in some ways this comparison isn’t fair to either of us. My figure is completed and has been worked on for several hours, while Sergio’s demo figures are quick demonstration pieces.

Anushka done comps front light edit

My practice figure is in the centre. Class demo figures painted by Sergio Calvo Rubio are to the left and right.

Anushka done comps back light edit

So that’s where I was after a couple of study pieces. Did I go on to incorporate principles of what I learned into my working process? Did anything stick? I’ve been thinking about that as I finish this article, and I think I’ll be working on a followup…

Figures Appearing in this Post

Tara the Silent is currently available in metal. She will be released in Bones Black plastic in the near future.
Tsukigoro is a 75mm scale (or 100mm?) figure from the Hirelings of Asura Kickstarter. I am unsure if the Hireling figures are currently for sale.
The goblin is Bocanegra the Little Tyrant.
Anushka Female Fighter is available in metal.
Mavaro, Iconic Occultist is available in Bones plastic or metal.
Beach Babe Libby is available in metal.
Eriu Champion with Greatsword is available in metal.

Problem Solving: Tara the Silent Part 4 – A Sisterly Comparison

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

In the previous instalments of this series (links later in the article), I walked through my work-in-progress steps of painting the figure Tara the Silent. My aim was to share the way I try to identify and solve issues during the process of painting a miniature. Progressing your painting skills has as much or more to do with improving your critical eye as it does with improving your brush and paint use skills. I think many people do not understand just how valuable it is to improve your ability to really see and analyze a figure (or other types of visual arts)! I know that I would have improved much more quickly and consistently had I been working on that as much as I focused on blending and other brush tricks.

It occurred to me that I could use Tara for one more exercise to try to help others build their critical eye. This exercise is one of comparison between two figures. Comparison can be as instructive as assessing a single work, whether that is a comparison of more recent work against older work, or comparing one artist’s interpretation of a figure against another’s. This exercise could also give you some insight to the challenges that contest judges face. You can imagine that these two figures are the final cut for a contest award, and determine which which you would choose and why. I will not share my analysis/thoughts until the section after the last picture. So if you want you can test your eye first, and then read my thoughts.

Anwyn and Tara, face viewsAnwyn the Bard is on the left, Tara the silent on the right. 

Although I have never before painted this version of Tara, I have painted her ‘sister’, Anwyn the Bard. Reaper sculptors occasionally take a figure and do a significant conversion of it to create a different character. Werner Klocke first sculpted Tara, and then did a resculpt of the miniature to create the character of Anwyn. Even apart from the fact that the figures aren’t identical, this is more of a lemons to oranges comparison than an apples to oranges one. The colour schemes are quite different, even the cameras used to take the photos aren’t the same. But comparing like to like is pretty rare in comparison critique, and definitely rare in contest judging, so while the exercise is a little more challenging than a direct like to like comparison, it is an opportunity to practice the type of thing you’re likely to do more often.

If you’d like to review the previous instalments in this series, here are links:
Part 1: Colour scheme creation (and correction) on the fly.
Part 2: Spotting and solving conundrums of contrast.
Part 3: Giving the figure a thorough once over before calling it done.

Tara and Anwyn, front views

So what kind of factors could you look at when making a comparison? Likely the first elements that will jump out to many people relate to the colour scheme. We are very responsive to colour, and our initial reactions to colour tend to be visceral and subconscious. Building your eye requires a more conscious and critical assessment in addition to that emotional response. As a judge, I have often been a position of awarding high honours to something I might not personally ‘like’ in terms of colour selection or subject, but which is very skillfully done.

* Do the colours work together in a pleasing and effective fashion? (Depending on the subject and the intended scene, ‘effective’ may mean garish or gross colours that aren’t ‘pleasing’ in the traditional sense!)

* Does the colour scheme fit the character and the story/mood that the painter is aiming for with the figure/scene?

* What is the level of contrast between the colours of different areas, and within the shading and highlighting of individual areas? Is the level of contrast sufficient to visually separate different areas of the model and help the viewer identify what the various items on the figure are?

* What is the level of nuance and complexity in the colours? Are there subtle variations of hue within areas? Is there harmony in the shadow and highlight colours over the whole of the piece? Do the colours of the main figure(s) and the scenic element(s) work together and look like parts of a consistent whole?

Tara and Anwyn, right views

Brush skills are another key area to compare. 

* Precision of paint application, both in larger areas, and within areas for placement of sharp highlights and darklining as appropriate.

* The success of the execution of details like eyes, small sculpted details, or pure painted details like freehand.

* Rendering of different surface textures – skin vs cloth vs leather vs metal vs wood vs dirt vs stone, etc. Is everything painted in a pretty similar way, or do these different textures stand out from one another in realistic and/or interesting ways?

* Consistency of rendering – is the overall level of the painting on the figure uniform? If you’ve ever wondered why something that looks fairly ‘plain’ scored higher in a contest than something with really great freehand or source lighting, consistency is often the reason. Doing an area or effect on a miniature spectacularly can fall short if the rest of the miniature is not up to a similar standard. That doesn’t mean that everything needs to have the exact same level of contrast or be super detailed! That is usually counter productive. You want to have areas of interest where the viewer focuses, and have areas that are less important fade into the background a little. But a miniature covered in detailed freehand standing on a base that’s had a quick wash and sloppy drybrush treatment isn’t as consistent as one with high quality but less flashy brushwork throughout the whole piece. 

(I will admit that consistency is an area where highly skilled artists can and have gotten away with doing things I just stated should not be done. Figures with errant brushstrokes, or areas that are barely base coated. Those of us of more modest talents are still well advised to aim for consistency as much as possible! I’ve also heard stories of people scoring lower or missing out on awards for having bits they ran out of time to paint to the standard of the rest of the figure.)

Tara and Anwyn, back views

Quality of preparation and the treatment of scenic elements can make a bigger difference to a figure than it might seem. They might not jump out at first viewing the way colour and brush skills do, but they’re a critical foundation to those elements.

* Prep work – the figure itself is your ‘canvas’. No amount of brush skill can completely overcome a poorly prepared canvas. Removing mould lines is just the beginning. You may also need to fill in pock marks on surfaces meant to be smooth, accentuate textures, file or carve weapons to look a little more sharp or pointed, etc. 

* Assembly is also important. Gaps between limbs will break the illusion pretty quickly! A common issue is the attachment of the figure to the base. If the feet look like they’re floating slightly above the surface rather than firmly planted, the miniature does not look like it’s part of the scene and doesn’t look like it has weight and substance.

* It is important to paint basing materials and most vegetation type flock. It seems like you should be able to put small rocks or sand or whatever on a base and have it look like rocks and sand, right? But unpainted basing materials do not look in scale to a painted figure. They also don’t look like they’re part of the same scene lit by the same light source. Painting the elements of the base, and using colours you used on the figure in those elements makes everything look unified and more realistic.

The last comparison picture is below, so don’t scroll past it if you don’t want to read my analysis yet!

Tara and Anwyn, left views

I’ll be honest – I hesitated to post these comparison pictures. I painted Anwyn in 2006! I’ve improved in the last dozen years, but not nearly so much as I might have hoped or expected. I wish I had understood the concepts of deliberate practice and focused self-critique so much earlier than I did! (And truthfully I’m still struggling with incorporating those ideas completely into my painting process.) I worked hard to ‘get better’, but in such an unfocused and haphazard way. 

In the end I have decided to take my lumps and share this in hopes that it may help some of you get where you want to be faster and more efficiently. I know the lure of chasing the right brush, painting, blending technique, etc. is hard to resist. But it really is only half the puzzle. Training your eye to see better so you can identify specific issues in your work and iterate through working to improve them is immensely important.

The Photos!

I can’t help but be struck by the difference in the photo quality. My camera in 2006 was a $400-500 mid-range digital camera. The one I used to take photos of Tara is just a little better in quality (it’s a new technology class of camera, but it was also in the $500 range at time of purchase, so fairly comparable.) It’s now six years old and I am considering replacing it. Partly due to mechanical issues, partly in hopes of being able to add video to my repertoire. Both cameras allowed for setting white balance, f/stop, and other features useful to taking pictures of miniatures. Some of the difference is also down to my improving my photo taking set up with more lights, and use of a tripod, as well as using a grayscale card to help with editing the colours to look truer to life. I did re-edit the pictures from 2006 to try to make the comparison between photos a little fairer.

Colour Comparison

I quite like the colour scheme on Anwyn, and suspect many people will prefer it to that used on Tara. I’ve been thinking about having another go of that colour scheme for a while now, and I hope a figure it will suit presents itself soon. The colour choices create more of a focal point around Anwyn’s face. Tara’s colour scheme is fairly well suited to the character, but lacks a little oomph from an artistic point of view, and it does not have a strong focal point.

Although there are some nice areas of highlight on Anwyn, I think I have improved my level of contrast over time. There are much deeper shadows on Tara than on Anwyn, as well as stronger contrast between some colour areas. I think the contrast difference is most noticeable in the hair and the non-metallic metal. That said, Tara has some contrast issues and needs stronger and more small top level highlights throughout most of the figure. The level of contrast isn’t that noticeably problematic in a photo, but viewed at tabletop distance she lacks the desired level of ‘pop’.

When it comes to nuance and complexity in colour, there I feel I have made noticeable improvement. Anwyn’s colours play it straight, and that results in a bit of a plastic, artificial look. Shadows and highlights are just darker and lighter variations of the midtones. There is no added complexity of colour in the face like blush or interesting shadow colours. The lack of colour complexity/variation is particularly noticeable in the difference between the two bases. Both are pretty simple, but Tara’s seems much more ‘real’ and related to the figure. This is largely due to the way it’s painted rather than the types of gravel or foliage I used.

Brush Skills Comparison

I don’t think it’s particularly evident in the areas of detail in these two figures (eyes, darklining, and so on), but I am confident that my brush skills overall have improved. The end result may not be strikingly different, but at least the level of frustration and effort required to achieve it has changed!

I am much more conscious of painting different types of textures and surfaces now, and I think that is pretty evident in comparing these two figures. Every area on Anwyn is painted in the same smoothly blended fashion, with the possible exception of her hair. I was obsessed with achieving smooth blends, and I think that shows. Tara demonstrates a lot more of an understanding of different materials having different textures – rough stone, worn leather, wood grain, shiny hair, etc. The transitions on the NMM are a little more varied and better represent the way reflected light can appear than the perfect smoothness on Anwyn’s NMM.

Preparation and Scene Setting

Both of these figures are presented on very simple bases, so there’s not a huge amount to assess there. I do think that my ability to make a decent looking simple base has improved, though that may not be saying much. ;-> Anwyn’s base is very simple, and lacks a bit of variety that would make it more pleasing to look at. The flowers very much look stuck on instead of being a bit more naturally part of the rest of the foliage.

I’ve always been a bit fussy about prep, so there’s not a big change to look at as far as that goes, either.

Conclusion

The end of the month crept up on me, so I’ve had to write this a bit more quickly than I usually prefer to do. Likely many of you will have spotted lots of issues with both of the figures or differences between them that I did not see. Feel free to share those in the comments. I am putting these figures out there to give people a chance to exercise their critique skills, so I have no problem with you tearing them apart. :->

Tara the Silent is an iconic Reaper Miniatures character that there have been a few different sculpts of over the years. I’ve even painted one before! (And then I painted her again, where she provided a good example of ways to paint with more contrast.) Reaper reproduced the classic Werner Klocke version in their new Bones Black plastic material as a promotional miniature for the month of May 2019, and also included it in their Bones 5 Kickstarter. It should go into general retail release in late 2021 or 2022. I painted the catalogue version for the new release of this figure. Anwyn the Bard is available in metal, or in classic Bones plastic.

Measuring Progress – More than “Better”

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

I think many of us tend to judge our progress of improvement in miniature painting by indicators like making first cut or placing in a contest, going from a bronze to silver then silver to gold medals in open shows, scores on sites like CMON or Putty & Paint, or even just getting a lot of likes and comments posting to social media sites like Facebook or Instagram.

Portraits combo1You probably think that the portrait on the right was drawn after the portrait on the left. (And some time after, at that!) You would be wrong. I drew them both last month, and the poorly drawn one was drawn after the better one. Yet overall I still feel pretty positive about my progress in learning to draw, and I think that I am improving. How can that be so? Read on to find out!

Contest placements and viewer responses absolutely can be valid markers of progress, and there’s nothing wrong with a little competitive spirit pushing you to strive and try new things! But when we rely only on those kinds of external judgments, we risk getting discouraged if they don’t come when we expect or when we feel like we need a little boost.  It’s also possible to plateau for a while in terms of the objective ‘quality’ of your paint job, but still be improving by other measures. It’s not necessarily that we don’t value these other measures, but often other types of improvement are subtle enough that we overlook them, or dismiss their value.

So today let’s talk about how ‘getting better’ at an artistic skill encompasses a lot more than just generating a more attractive looking end result.

Faster

Speed is definitely an area to consider. If you can paint a figure of the same quality today in half the time or 75% of the time, or even 90% of the time that it used to take you, then that is definitely getting better. Faster means you’re can paint more figures within your allotted hobby time, or that you have some additional time to spend on each figure to work on pushing your skills with techniques and effects that eventually will drive your quality up a notch.

For my fellow super slow painters, the reverse is also true! If you are still taking 10 or 20 or however many hours to paint a figure, but you’re also gradually improving the quality of each, that still means you’re getting better and making progress. Do not despair!

And an important note – I’m talking about improving your speed using techniques/paints/tools with which you are familiar. When you try new things, you have to accept that it’s going to take you longer with them than with your usual methods and materials! I mention this because I’ve definitely been in the position of feeling like I should be able to just pick up something new and run with it because I’ve been painting for X amount of time or at Y level. There’s always a learning curve. If anything, the more practiced you are with one method and set of tools, the more of an initial hurdle of time and discomfort that you might have when trying something new.

6m man better stronger fasterThey didn’t just rebuild Steve Austin to be BETTER. They also rebuilt him FASTER and STRONGER.

Stronger (or Easier)

When you first started to paint, almost everything seemed like a challenge and required a lot of focused concentration. Just figuring out how to hold the brush and the miniature and then getting the paint to go close to where you wanted it (and not on top of something else you just painted.) Then you start learning next steps like making washes or applying drybrushing, or maybe painting layers or wetblending. If you’ve been painting a while, likely you then tried your hand at trickier effects, like non-metallic metal or source lighting or whatever else.

Whatever stage of the miniature painting journey that you’re on, the elements you’re trying to master right now are challenging and often it may often seem like you take one step forward and two steps back. But very likely you’re forgetting how much you’ve learned in previous stages.

When you first started painting everything was challenging and required concentration. But if you stop and think about it, I bet there are skills that you’ve mastered so well that you now perform them almost unconsciously. Think back to the first few miniatures you painted or tasks that you really struggled with when you first started painting. Maybe you still struggle with lining or freehand, but isn’t it easier overall to get the brush where you want it than it was at first? Is it as tough to choose wash or shadow colours as it was before? Do you need to go back over sections making as many corrections for brush slips as much as you used to?

Whatever you’re working on now might still feel really difficult, but give yourself credit for all the skills that you’ve already mastered. That genuinely does count as ‘getting better’! If you really hadn’t improved at all, you’d still have to concentrate and work hard at every single element of prepping and painting a figure.

Hand versus Eye

You may not have a bionic hand and eye like Steve Austin, but the concept of the hand and the eye, or sometimes, the hand versus the eye, is very pertinent to building art related skills.

The ‘hand’ refers to the mechanical type skills related to painting – methods of manipulating the brush and the paint and similar things. People learning art skills tend to get really hung up on this aspect of it. We spend the majority of our learning efforts concentrating on elements related to the hand.

We spend much less time thinking or talking about the ‘eye’ part of the equation, which is unfortunate, because it’s a lot more important than we often think. The ‘eye’ element encompasses the idea of being able to look at something and really see it. This is a more complex concept that it might seem, and I imagine I’ll make blog posts that delve into this in more detail in the future.

One example of being able to truly see things is referencing life. If you want to paint leather or hair or metal that looks convincing, you need to study those things in the real world. You have to assess where they look darker or lighter, the proportion of darker to lighter, what the natural colours of those things are in different lighting circumstances, and a number of other factors, and then try to figure out how to apply that information to a figure in a way that looks both pleasing and somewhat realistic.

Looking at something and really seeing it also applies to looking at our work and the work of others and assessing its strengths and weaknesses, as well as making comparisons. A person newer to painting can look at a really world class figure and a fairly good figure and genuinely not see major differences between them. Or they might see some differences, but not really be able to identify what those are.

The ability of your artistic eye grows just as your manual dexterity skills do. One of the things that can throw us is that they don’t always level up at the same time. If you are going through a period where you feel like everything you paint looks worse than usual, it’s very likely that your eye has improved. You are able to assess your figures more critically and see your weaknesses more clearly. This very likely does not feel like positive progress! But it can be, if you use your improved eye to try to identify specific weaknesses in your work and then put together a plan of action for ways to possibly address them.

Conversely, if you go through a period where you think everything you paint looks pretty fantastic, it’s possible that your abilities to manipulate brush and paint have improved, but your critical eye is lagging a little behind.

Portraits combo2I was pretty unhappy with the drawing on the left. I do feel like I should know better at this stage of practice and training. But rather than beat myself up about it, I decided to just try again and push myself to do better. It is definitely pretty mortifying to be sharing something I consider a failure publicly, but it if helps other people learn or be kinder to themselves, then it is well worth a little public embarassment.

So if I know how to draw a decent portrait, how did I end up drawing a bad one like the above? Unconscious mastery and the importance of the eye are two of the pieces of that puzzle. The poor portrait was drawn at an art store demo. I knew I had limited time with the materials and was eager to try them out. I am still learning to draw, and getting proper proportions and correct shapes as well as placing the features of the face in the right places takes a lot of concentration and effort for me. In other words, I need to consciously put my eye (observation skills) into artist mode and check and recheck my work. With the poor portrait, I rushed through the steps of forcing my eye to do its job to get to the fun hands-on stuff of doing the shading and colouring in the drawing.

The better version of this same face was drawn with the opposite focus. I spent about the same amount of time overall, but a lot more of the time was spent on the basic drawing and checking proportions and placements. So it’s not rendered to the same degree, but it’s overall a much better drawing. But even the poor portrait isn’t cause to beat myself up as a total failure. I was a lot more comfortable with the tools and doing the shading and rendering than I was the first few times I did those things. I was a lot less phased by the limited colour selection of the tools offered in the demo than I would have been years ago before learning general colour theory. (In the event that anyone is curious, the pencil portrait up at the top is more finely rendered, and probably took 2-3 times as long to do as each of the colour portraits.)

The Big Picture

When assessing your progress, try not to focus on a single event or metric. And try to make note of improvements in your process and comfort level, rather than looking only to external markers like positive feedback or contest results. There are going to be moments when you try something new and don’t succeed as well as you’d like, or even at all. There are even going to be moments where you backslide on things you thought you mastered. Those are just individual points on a graph. If your overall graph line is moving upwards, you’re still making progress!

Have you had any moments where you heard a ding! and you felt like you’d leveled up? Or moments when you stepped back and realized that you were getting better in ways you hadn’t thought about before? I hope you’ll share your experiences in the comments, I’d love to hear!