Attitude Adjustment

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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.

Study Guide for Painting Tutorials: Sketching in Highlight and Shadow Placement on a Face

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I just watched a terrific video I think many people would find it very useful to view. In addition to linking to the video so you can go watch it too, I’m also going to share some information related to the topics of the video, and suggest a sort of study guide for how you might put the material from the demonstration into practice.

Still from Miniature Painting Masterclass videoA still from the video on how to paint a face by starting with a sketch of highlights and shadows. Painted by Jaume Ortiz.

The video is called Painting a Face in 75mm Part 1: Creating a Sketch of Highlights and Shadows, and it is a painting demonstration by Jaume Ortiz. It is produced by Miniature Painting Masterclass in partnership with Vallejo paints and FeR Miniatures, but the principles demonstrated are applicable to most figures, painted using any kind of paints. There are several points in the video that I think people may find useful to consider in their own painting.

Mixing Layers and Paint Transparency (Consistency)

How to mix layers, how many, and how much to dilute the paint to use the layering techniques are all very common questions among miniature painters. At the start of the video Jaume demonstrates the paint mixes he will use to paint the highlight and shadow layers. He mixes these onscreen. All paint colours used are clearly listed, but he does not detail the precise ratios of one paint colour to another for the layer mixes beyond what you can see him place on his palette. Since paint colours are unique in strength, transparency, etc., you can’t use a universal guide of X to Y drops for all mixes. You need to judge by the visual results with your specific paint colours. If you look at Jaume’s palette once the paints are mixed, you can use that as a tool to get an idea of the appropriate steps between the highlight and shadow mixes.

Likewise, Jaume indicates that he’s added a little water to his mixes, but he’s not specific about how much. Some paint colours are much more transparent than others, so the amount of dilution you need to add to a paint to make it the right transparency for a particular function varies from paint colour to paint colour. Instead, take a look at the way the edges of the paint look on his palette. You can see some of the palette through the paint, but it’s also still opaque enough to make noticeable strokes when he layers one paint over another.

Sketching (also known as Roughing In or Blocking In)

Caerindra sketch NMM and finished NMMI used the sketch approach to paint the non-metallic metal on Caerindra. On the left, you can see that I roughed in the main shadows and highlights only on the armour I ignored blending, and I also ignored details like the rivets and lining between panels. My goal was to establish the key areas of light and shadow. In the finished version on the right, I refined the blending and added details. I wrote a blog post about painting Caerindra, and my post about painting an Efreeti includes another example of blocking in highlights and shadows on NMM.  

Roughing in colour or doing a sketch is basically what you see in the above pictures – the highlights and shadows are painted in with no concern for blending smooth transitions. This accomplishes several goals:

* Quick application of highlight and shadow colours allows the painter to verify that the colours they’ve selected work well and provide enough contrast without investing a lot of time in painting everything to a high standard and THEN discovering you need to change your choices.

* The painter can concentrate their focus on precise placement of where areas should appear darker or lighter. (More on that below.) Breaking a task down into separate elements increases the chance of you performing each of those elements well. (In contrast to the challenge of trying to manage placement and blending simultaneously, which is more challenging and thus more likely to run into issues.)

* The painter can customize their vision of where light and shadow appears based on different types of lighting. The video demonstrates placement in a zenithal lighting scenario. You can photograph a figure under a small bright light to customize your light direction and know where to place lights and shadows. I’ve got an example of such photo reference here and here

* The painter can use this approach to push themselves to create a more dramatic level of contrast. It’s easier to do that using a completely different method of paint application than you usually do. It’s easy to vow to push your usual approach, but easier to fall back into usual habits and do what you always do.

Ingrid sketched in different lightingThe sketch on the left was painted with the light imagined as coming from above (zenithal lighting). The sketch on the right imagines the light coming from the upper right angle.

Placement of Highlight and Shadow Layers

Even you aren’t interested in learning more about the sketching approach, the way it is applied in this video provides valuable information for painters. When you look at something painted with smoothly blended transitions, it is quite difficult to deconstruct it to determine where the painter applied each of the specific levels of highlight and shadow mixes. When you watch this sketch approach video, it is very easy to see exactly where Jaume is putting each of the highlight and shadow mixes.

The demonstration figure in the video is 75mm scale. The general location of highlights and shadows under zenithal light is the same on gaming scale figures, but there may be cases where the highlights and/or shadows need to be simplified a little to read well at scale. (Or you may need to simplify if you have trouble applying them to some of the more detailed elements at smaller scale.) Jaume’s knowledge of anatomy is impressive, and encourages me to hurry and get to that point in my study of drawing!

Barbarian finished in colour vs black and white sketchCan you tell where I placed the third level highlight in the finished version? It’s a lot easier to see where the various layers are placed in the black and white sketch version on the right.

Suggestions for Practice and Study

These suggestions for how to practice and study miniature painting pertain to this video specifically, but also instructional tutorials in general.

Following a step by step example using the same figure and paints as in the demonstration can be very helpful for many people. It allows you to just focus on following the steps, rather than having to improvise to work around differences. You can find the figure from this video at FeR Miniatures, and the specified Vallejo paints through many local and online merchants. (The Face Painting Set used in the video is available from US Amazon, and likely international Amazons as well.)

If you don’t have access to the same figure and paints (or you want to jump in practicing while waiting for supplies to arrive), search through your figures for a male figure with a head similar in size, pose, and expression. If possible, you want a larger than gaming scale figure – a giant or ogre or something else with a larger than 32mm face for your first time practicing. The closer your supplies are to those used by Jaume, the easier you’ll find it to obtain results similar to his. You also want a figure with the head facing forward and not tilted to one side or the other. (If the head is tilted, you can remove the head from your figure and place it on a holder so you can paint it as if it is posed straight up and facing forward like the demonstration figure.) The location of highlights and shadows would be different if the head were tilted in a different position.

For paints, it is most important to match the value – the relative lightness or darkness of the colour. If your colour choices are a little more yellow or a little less red or whatnot, that will present far less of an issue than using paint which is much lighter or darker than the paints Jaume uses to mix his layers. Once you understand the principles of mixing and applying layers in this fashion you can use crazy colours to paint fantastical skin tones, but I do recommend practicing with natural human skin tones the first few times. The fewer variables you have that differ from the example you’re following, the more likely you are to obtain similar results and come to a better understanding of the principles. And if your results do differ, fewer variables make it easier for you to try to isolate and resolve the problems you might be having.

Still from Miniature Painting Masterclass video of paletteThis is a still from the video isolating the highlight, mid-tone, and shadow paint colours. (On the mid-tone, look at the edges of the pool for the best look at the colour, the centre of the pool looks lighter due to paint separation and/or reflection of the studio lights.)

B&W still of the palette from Miniature Painting Masterclass video.I converted the palette image to black and white to give you a better view of the values of the paint colours. You can lay out drops of your own colours and then take a black and white picture of them to check how well the values match. Notice how dark that shadow colour really is! Reddish colours are often much darker than we perceive them to be.

Once you have your supplies in hand, I recommend that you start by watching the video all the way through at least once. When you’re ready to paint, it is handy if you can put the video up on  a tablet or PC near where you paint so you can pause the video and restart it as necessary for you to follow along completing each step. You may also find it helpful to take screen shots to reference where to place each highlight or shadow layer as you paint.

After you finish each step, stop and compare your work with the example. Do they look roughly similar? If not, spend some time studying your work against the reference to try to identify what’s different – do you have a layer in the wrong place? Did you make a highlight too wide or too narrow? If you don’t get it correct straight away, don’t beat yourself up! The purpose of practice is to learn. Think of an error as an opportunity to build your eye’s ability to identify issues, and your brain’s ability to come up with potential solutions for them. Both are very helpful skills to improving as a painter.

After you’ve finished painting through the tutorial, put your work aside for a day or two. Then come back to it with fresh eyes and compare again. You may find that your level of contrast is much less than you thought it was while painting, or you might spot new errors in layer placement. This is a very common experience! I often walk away from a session of painting with an impression of what I did, and when I come back to look at the miniature find that my impression was pretty off and I need to adjust the very thing I thought I was doing well while I was painting.

Once you’ve practiced the demonstrated technique as closely as possible to how it’s demonstrated, spend some time thinking about the experience. Did the method seem to work well for you and you might like it better than your current approach? It can take more than once practicing something to get a good sense for whether or not the technique or approach works for you.

However it’s also the case that instead of adopting a new technique or approach whole cloth, you might find that it works better for you to incorporate it into the way you work. I normally paint the shadows first, and I normally work down from my lightest shadow to my darkest. In this video, Jaume Ortiz paints the highlights first, and then begins painting the shadows with his darkest shadow, then a step lighter, and then a step lighter again. If I try this approach, I might find that it works very well for me. If it does not, I can still incorporate valuable lessons about where to place the shadows and highlights and how to use a sketch approach into my normal approach to painting shadows and then highlights.

Coming Soon

I haven’t always worked to improve my miniature painting with this kind of study and deliberate practice. I wish I had, as I think it would have helped me learn things much easier and more quickly than I have. But I still have a lot to learn, so I am trying to take more of this kind of approach now. I’ll have a few experiments and experiences of my own to share in upcoming posts.

If you want to see how Jaume Ortiz turns his sketch into a beautifully painted face, part 2 of this video series is available.

Additional Resources

Follow Miniature Painting Masterclass on Facebook for links to more great videos, and also galleries of step-by-step picture and text instruction.

I included some information about how I sketched in initial highlights on a black cloak in this PDF.

I sketched in both black and white and then colour on this Christmas dragon figure.

Figures Referenced in this Post

Officer of the 5th New Hampshire Volunteer Regiment 1862 by FeR Miniatures
Caerindra Thistlemore by Reaper Miniatures
Ingrid the Gnome by Reaper Miniatures is available in metal or Bones plastic
Tyrea Bronzelocks by Reaper Miniatures is available in metal or Bones plastic