Friday, 13 July 2012

Pushing Out of Your Comfort Zone

I mentioned in my last post that I am currently trying to expand my painting experience by trying new techniques, tools, and thinking.  It’s a fairly difficult process… I’ve been painting minis for a very long time (back when I started almost all miniatures were made of lead, Mike McVey was a junior Eavy Metal team member, White Dwarf ran adventures for AD&D and Judge Dredd the RPG, and I listened to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” on my parent’s turntable), and have a comfortable repertoire of painting techniques and habits that I have a hard time leaving behind.  In many ways, I think it’s much easier for a brand new painter to learn various painting techniques than an old experienced dog like myself.

How so?  Well, a new painter is open-minded, with no pre-conceptions, not operating under any “rules”, and willing to try anything.  Their minds are like a fresh blank primed canvas, ready to take any colour, any technique, and accept any result.

By contrast, experienced painters are like an old painting.  For them, learning a new technique forces them to discard old ones that they are comfortable with.  When they hold a brush, muscle memory makes them unconsciously reach for the old standby colours for shades and highlights, apply lighting effects in the same way they’ve done for years, and fill in details the same way they know how.  It’s like changing course on a ship the size of the Titanic, or applying paint over a previously painted canvas.

For me, shading light blue with red instead of a darker “Regal Blue” or black is a conscious effort.  To push / pull paint around for blending requires a tremendous amount of willpower and concentration, whereas layering with thinned down paints is near autopilot for me.  Testing the consistency of the paint on my brush by giving it a quick swipe on the back of my left thumb (a trick I learned recently) is something I have to remind myself to do.  In fact, I often start painting a model with every intention of using all new techniques, only to finish off the model with all my old techniques.  Sometimes I just lose patience and without thinking about it, slip back into all my old habits.

On the other hand, someone who is new to painting miniatures has nothing to unconsciously fall back on.  They push on with the new technique, simply because they know no other way.  They are forced to learn, and tend to stay focused for much longer.

So, if you’re relatively new to painting miniatures, take heart!  There are countless painters out there with only a few years of experience who produce models many times nicer than anything I could ever produce.  Heck, I believe it was Vincent Hudon who won a Slayer Sword (probably the most coveted award in our hobby) at a Canadian Games Day with only one year worth of painting experience!

That being said, it’s really fun to try new approaches to painting.  One of the things I’ve been doing is exactly what I used to do when I first started out: I pick up every painting article I can get my hands on, and try and follow along as best I can.  Each writer has their own techniques and quirks that come through in their painting articles, and the challenge is to try and figure out what they were thinking when they picked a certain tool or technique, and try and work the same way they worked.  By trying to be a different painter than yourself, you push yourself out of your old comfort zone, and experience new perspectives.

Just prior to taking Mathieu Fontaine’s class, I picked up a copy of Eavy Metal Masterclass by Games Workshop.  For anyone who doesn’t already know this, Games Workshop’s in-house professional painters are collectively known as the “Eavy Metal” team.  Chock full of painting articles, with excellent full colour step by step pics, this book is like owning a fantastic cookbook of other people’s recipes.  By following along, step by step, on your own models, you get a feel for their techniques.

YouTube is another rich source of demonstrated techniques.  Now, not all the videos are astounding in video quality, but often there’s just enough there for you to try tackling a new approach to painting.

Of course, in terms of video quality, there are a number of professionally produced miniature painting DVD’s out there.  I recently picked up the Miniature Painting Secrets DVDs featuring Natalya Melnik and Jennifer Haley.  While most YouTube videos are visually very grainy, poorly lit, out of focus, and badly narrated, these are very easy to follow with the eye.  Not perfect, by any means (I found them unnecessarily long, with less narration and verbal explanation by the painters during the painting than I would have liked, and Natalya’s DVD didn’t show what she was doing on her palate when loading her brush), but I really do appreciate the extra work that went into the production values… it’s probably as close to seeing the artist paint in person as you could get.

Speaking of seeing work in person, in my opinion nothing beats actually getting the chance to look over the shoulder of an artist you admire.  Many top miniature painters offer classes, and some even tutor one-on-one!  There are very few jobs out there that pay worse than miniature painting professionally.  Honestly, I barely scraped by back when I was a “pro-painter”, and I know I did much better financially than most.  Things are probably better now for them than they were years ago, but I still bet that most professional miniature painters would be thrilled if you offered them a decent hourly wage for tutoring them in painting techniques, and it will definitely stoke their ego to be asked (we’re a praise-seeking bunch).  Also, getting real-time feedback on your painting techniques and corrections is definitely worth the coin.

However, if you’re even more broke than the pro-painters, I would strongly suggest getting a bunch of buddies together for a social painting session.  All that’s required is a big table, lots of lights, paints, models, and some good beer (okay, beer is optional, but I find it’s a good social solvent, and people are more likely to show up if there’s the promise of a decent micro-brew).  Your painting buddies don’t necessarily have to be better at painting than you are… they just have to have slightly different styles and experiences for you to share tips and tricks, and to improve as a group.  It’s a pleasant way to spend an evening, and I find I focus on the painting more, and improve my skills faster, than I do when painting by myself.  Not everyone enjoys painting this way (anti-social freaks…), but it works for me.

Blogs are another useful source of painting tutorials.  Many painters write about their latest projects, show “work in progress” shots, and best of all, answer questions if you email them or post to their blog.  On the sidebar of my blog, SableandSpray, are some links to the many blogs I like to follow.

Lastly (for now), I should mention that there are many excellent painting forums out there.  Coolminiornot is a good one, but WAMP, OzPainters, and a few others are almost exclusively geared towards miniature painting artists.  Heck, even more gaming-focused forums like Warseer or DakkaDakka have decent miniature painting threads, although I’ve found the users more concerned with getting decent looking results across a whole army.

Whether you’re new or old to painting, take it from me… there are so many more sources of inspiration and instruction than there were back when I started.  Back then, all we had to go on were pics in Dragon and White Dwarf magazine, and we would have to guess and reverse engineer the paint jobs we admired.  Nowadays you can spend a few minutes reading a book, watching a DVD, or surf the web, and get enough material to work on for weeks.  Best of all, you can even get in touch with those artists you admire and get tips directly from them!

The trick is to keep pushing yourself, and trying new things.  If you continue to use the techniques you already know, you won’t grow as an artist.  You might get faster, you might get a bit more polished, but you won’t be expanding your “toolbox” of tricks, so to speak.  It’s much more challenging and frustrating to try something out of your comfort zone, but nothing beats that “eureka!” moment you get when you successfully replicate someone else’s results.  At that moment, you start adapting it to your own style, mixing it with your own techniques, and come up with something new and uniquely yours.

Recently, I spent a stupid amount of time trying to feather and wet blend true metallics on a sword… took me the entire afternoon just to do one side, and my jaw was sore from gritting my teeth in frustration.  The finished result was amazing though… much more depth than I’m used to seeing in my metallic paintings, although it was looking a bit grainier and rougher than I would like.  Still… I can see where this is all going, and I learned more in that one afternoon than I have in many months previously.  If I keep at it, I may get the effects to be much smoother and seamless, in less time, and I’ll really be proud of what I’ve done.

So long as I don’t lose my patience and revert back to my old habits, that is.