Have you ever seen one of these in your local hobby / craft shop?:
These have been around for a long long time, and while I've often given them a quick glance, I've always dismissed them out of hand. After all, my eyes were pretty good (the last time I took an eye exam, I shocked the nurse when I was able to read everything on the other side of the room, even the copyright date at the bottom of the eye poster), and I figured that if there was a detail I couldn't make out on a miniature, it was fairly likely that few other people could discern that detail either.
Well, two things happened to change my mind. First of all, my eyesight is not as good as it used to be. I'd say it's still better than most, and I'm not likely to need glasses any time soon, but as I approach 40, I have to admit that it's not going to get any better. It seems to take my eyes fractionally longer to adjust to different light conditions, and it takes fractionally longer to focus on fiddly little things. Nothing's blurry... yet, but my eyes do get tired during a long painting session, which never seemed to happen before.
The second thing that happened is the Internet. Well... that, and the advent of really nice digital pics, and super-sized computer monitors. Once upon a time, we viewed miniatures at life size, or perhaps only a little bit larger than life size. Either we saw the model in hand, on the tabletop, in a display case, or perhaps in a print magazine picture that was perhaps only slightly larger than the real thing.
Nowadays though, we're used to seeing high quality digital pictures of our 28mm tall miniatures blown up to the size of our tablets or monitors. Suddenly, it's no longer good enough to be able to paint pupils on the eyes of our models... we need to paint the colour of the eyes, a small dot of light reflecting off the iris, and the red veins around the edges of the eye. Okay, perhaps that's a slight exaggeration if you only plan on cranking out tabletop quality paintjobs for your 3000 point Warhammer 40K army, but if you aspire to hit the top 10 miniature paintjobs of the week on Coolminiornot, then you've got to treat that tiny model as if it was the size of your forearm.
In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion that that's why more and more painters are finding themselves favouring 32mm and 54mm models nowadays... because it's easier to get an impressive final product to view on a larger screen.
Anyway, the combination of the two is a bit of depressing state of affairs for me. Not only do I have to step up my game, but my most important tools (my eyes) are blunter than they've ever been. During Mathieu Fontaine's painting clinic, I remember him advising his students to avoid optivisors if at all possible, but out of desperation, I decided to give one a try.
I picked up this one at Burnaby Hobbies, a nearby hobby store (the non-gaming kind... lots of R/C cars, model tanks, tons of tools and modelling supplies) for a tad over $30. I can't recall the brand, but there are similar makes and models from all kinds of companies out there, and they all looked the same to me. I'm sure there are nicer ones out there, but I'm not willing to spend that kind of money on an experiment.
So... what did I get for $30?
The visor itself is a rigid plastic, as are the lenses. However, the strap is a more flexible sort of plastic, and it adjusts in size with a velcro strip. Wearing one isn't all that uncomfortable, and I was able to get it snug enough to keep it in place on my head. Seeing as I still have almost all of my hair, I can't say how comfortable it would be if you were bald, but I don't think it would be all that bad. This is in part because of just how light the whole contraption is. For a guy who wears a ballcap all the time, and occasionally uses a LED headlamp when I paint away from my home studio, I didn't find this visor to be uncomfortable at all.
The interesting bit is that this particular model actually has three lenses.
By flipping each up and down, you can "set" the visor to different magnifications. A great feature for some people, but I found anything more than a single lense to be massive overkill. I needed a magnifying lense, not a microscope!
Anyway, I tried it out, and it did a great job of effectively bringing the model closer to my face, while still maintaining a nice crisp view of it. I was also suprised that I still retained a degree of depth perception. I once owned one of those artist desk lamps with the magnifying lense in the middle of it, and I never used the magnification because it robbed me of any sense of depth... and the whole thing was pretty awkward to paint under anyway.
While painting with the Optivisor, I was able to make out the details on my models better, which helped when I was painting pupils on some infantry models. While working on some freehand designs, I didn't find myself squinting, and was able to hold a more precise line. In effect, I was able to see what my model would look like when viewed on a large screen monitor, and it did help.
However, there were some pretty major drawbacks as well. It has a really shallow focal depth. That means that when you try and look at something other than your model, it goes out of focus. I would be working on a freehand line on a cloak, but then my brush and hand would go out of focus when I reached for my palatte or wash water. At first, I just flipped the mag lense down whenever I needed the extra magnification, and then flipped it back up, but that got tedious. I ended up keeping the lense down, but tilting my head back so I could look under the lense whenever I needed to look at something other than the model in my left hand. It was sort of what people do with bifocal glasses, only in reverse. It worked, but after awhile, my neck got sore from leaning my head back and forth so much, and my eyes got sore from adjusting from magnification to natural vision over and over again.
So will I continue to use an optivisor? Only in rare instances, I would think. The hassle of flipping my head back and forth like Zaphod Beeblebrox in the last "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" movie is considerable, and I worry what the long term effects of constantly refocusing my eyes is going to be like.
That being said, I thought detail work seemed to be a bit easier, and my results were slightly better. I think what I'll do is paint without it 99.9% of the time, and only break it out when I'm doing the finishing touches on a competition piece. If it's tabletop quality, I won't even bother.
However, I may change my tune in another decade or so. If my vision is ever shot so bad that I have a hard time "reading" a model with my unaided eyes, I'll probably find myself using the optivisor more and more often.
And let's hope that we don't ever end up looking at pics of our 28mm models on wall sized monitors in the future...