Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Painting Competition Entries: The Shotgun Approach

I always say that winning an award shouldn't be your one and only goal when entering a painting competition.  The true value of entering competitions is for the experience, the motivation, and the camaraderie that competitive painting gives you.  Simply competing makes you a better painter, and I firmly believe that.  It doesn't matter if you think you have a chance at winning or not, the act and effort of pushing yourself to the best of your ability in order to enter a model that showcases your hard work and talent is enough of a reason to enter.

However, what if you REALLY want to win?  You know you're up against some stiff competition... fellow artists whose work you respect, and yet you still want to give yourself the best chance of spanking their butts?

For a no-holds-barred competition entry (not just "Oh, I'm really proud of something I just painted, and maybe I'll throw it into the competition and see how it does"), I think you need to take what I call, "The Shotgun Approach".

This is my PAINTBRUSH!!!

What is the Shotgun Approach?  It's not a precision sniper shot directed at a particular judge's one weakness.  Instead, it's a massive blunderbuss blast to all the possible nerve endings.

After all, every judge has their own personal biases, and certain artistic sensibilities.  One judge is consistently wowed by impressive freehand, another judge puts the importance of seamless blending above all else.  Perhaps one judge loves weathering effects, but maybe you get a judge who goes nuts over back-story infused entries.  If you don't know what kind of judge you will get, your entry needs to hit ALL the bases. Like a duck-hunting shotgun, you are basically trying to throw every trick you know up into the air, in hopes that something in your entry will connect with the judge and bring you the win.

For this to work, it will take considerable pre-planning, and sufficient skill in various tools and techniques.  A shotgun entry will be a sterling example of everything you know about miniatures, and it will take time, imagination, and considerable effort.

In our local painting scene of Vancouver, Canada, there are painters with reputations for excellence in one area or another.  They specialize, and have certain strengths that put them far and above the average painter... in that one aspect of painting.  If I was to try and think of a reason why this is the case, I would have to say that the majority of painters in Vancouver are relatively new... it's a pretty young crowd overall, and if you've only been painting for a short number of years, then pushing yourself to mastery of one aspect of painting is achievable with a considerable amount of blood, sweat, and tears.  However, it's hard to get good at EVERYTHING if you haven't been around as long as some.

Now, I'm not a world-class painter.  Locally, I've done pretty well, completed a number of pieces that I'm very proud of, and even made a living at it for a number of years.  But those years of 40-60 hour work weeks drained the enjoyment out of painting over time.  I got burnt out in the hobby, and let my brushes collect dust for nearly a decade.  Even had I continued to push my talents on a daily basis, it would have been an incredible feat to keep up and perhaps catch up to my painting idols of the day.  However, without constant practice and constant dedication to improving my craft, there was absolutely no way I could reach my full potential.

But here's the thing... I kept lurking in the painting scene.  The Internet allowed me to constantly check up on what was going on, and watching the trends.  I did paint here and there, and try out a few new things every so often.  I would follow other painters, check up on their WIPs ("works in progress"), read their tutorials, and try and replicate some of their techniques the same way the at-home cook follows the recipe of a celebrity chef.

My idol

Over time, this accumulated experience from all this tinkering has given me a deep and varied skillset.  When I finally got around to really taking painting seriously again, I was able to take classes with master painters such as Mathieu Fontaine and Meg Maples, and that has only broadened and strengthened my repertoire of painting skills, and given me more familiarity with various tools that I hadn't worked with before (weathering powders, glazes, airbrushes, resins, mediums, etc.).  Most importantly, those classes re-energized my desire to get better, and gave me extra confidence going in to painting competitions.

So when I decide to put together a competition-worthy model, I can hit it with a number of different techniques, and have a pretty good chance of catching the judge's eye.  You may still be beaten out by an entry that exceeds your skill in one particular aspect or another, provided that it's the aspect that the judge of the day values most of all.  But if you don't know what kind of judge you will get, the shotgun approach gives you the best overall chance of at least getting in to the final cut.

Is it more time-consuming?  Hell yeah.  I've done up models that had some of my best blending ever, and instead of being able to call it a day, I've only called it half-done.  After that, I've poured hours and hours into adding freehand, doing up some weathering, adding OSL (object source lighting) effects, and throwing every other trick, technique, special tool, and even every gimmick I could think of at it.  Then when THAT was done, I sunk a huge amount of time into some sort of eye-catching base or display stand.  In the end, I could have probably done up 3-4 competition-worthy (or at least display-worthy) entries in the same amount of time as that one entry.

Almost done?  Not even close...
Closer, but still a long way off.
Hours later, this is still nowhere near finished.
Probably needs more cowbell...

But I think it's worth it.  If I knew in advance what kind of judge I was dealing with, I could target that judge's particular weakness specifically, and not worry about any other aspect that didn't really impress him / her.  It would certainly save me a ton of time and effort.  But when you have an unknown judge, you go in with everything you've got.

Karol Rudyk's 2012 Slayer Sword winner.  The ultimate "Shotgun Approach" entry.
Kickass base?  Check.
Impeccable blending?  Check.
Convincing special (weathering and gore) effects?  Check.
Incredibly intricate freehand banner?  Check.
Expertly reposed and remodelled kit?  Check.
This entry does everything but fly around the convention centre on its own.

And if I still lose?  Well, I've still got a kickass model that I can still be very proud of.  But most importantly, I've pushed myself and my talents in not just one single aspect of painting / modelling, but in EVERY aspect of painting / modelling.  It means that I can't help but become a better and stronger painter in every regard, and if I continue to compete in this manner, I will be a well-rounded painter with no one real weakness.

I never go in to a competition with any guarantee of a win, but I do try to give myself a fighting chance.  The only thing that is 100% guaranteed is that I will probably walk away from the competition as a MUCH stronger painter.  To me, that's success.  That's as tangible a reward for hard work as any trophy.

So the next time you enter a painting competition and don't walk away with a prize, don't blame the judge for not valuing your particular talent or specialty enough.  Not all people have the same eye for miniature art.  Figure out what it was that the winning entry had that was better than your own entry, and work on shoring up that aspect of your painting.  And seek out new ways of painting and practice the heck out of them so that you can hit your next competition entry with a myriad of tricks that will catch ANY judge's eye, no matter their personal preferences.

Monday, 22 September 2014

Painted vs. Unpainted: Why Even Bother?

"The Hobby" as we know it, revolves around miniatures and game rules.  Those are the two components that are the fundamental cornerstones of our obsession.  Before "The Hobby", there were games, and there were models.  But just like a certain sweet treat that I have a certain fondness for, marrying two great things often makes for a fantastic fattening nom-nom that is far sweeter than the sum of it's parts.

Can you remember the first time you were exposed to miniature games?  Did you walk by a games store, pop in looking for toys, and see a beautifully laid out gaming table, with gorgeously painted miniatures and dice battling it out, and two (or more) gamers having a blast?  Or did you start off playing Dungeons and Dragons, and delighted in finding that one miniature that perfectly represented the character you had been role-playing for some time now?  

The point is, there's something different about playing a miniatures game, rather than a board game, card game, or video game.  There's a sense of ownership over an army, and the miniatures more fully belong to you than some cheap Chinese injection molded chess pieces or chits on a piece of cardboard.  It's somehow more elevated, more personal, and definitely more characterful.  And it's not just in your imagination, it's tactile, and visually decadent.

I'm incredibly passionate about "The Hobby", as a gamer, and as a modeller.  So a part of me cries inside whenever I see people dispassionately playing games with unpainted or single-colour primered models.

Recently, Bush Craft posted some coverage from Nova, and in it, he pointed out that only a few people showed up for a $15 painting seminar by one of the biggest names in the industry, Justin McCoy of Secret Weapon Miniatures.

Justin's "Zombie Truck" with working LED lights and fantastic weathering
Now Justin is just an amazing miniature painter, but with an extensive background in the pure modelling side of things.  He is an IPMS (International Plastic Modellers Society) award winner, and founded and runs a company that produces some of the best modelling and painting supplies in the world.  His products have helped the likes of Mathieu Fontaine win multiple Golden Demon awards, and the rest of us create really nice finished gaming models.  Getting a chance to sit down with him and ask him questions and watch him demonstrate his techniques is a rare privilege, and I was shocked to hear that so few people took advantage of this opportunity.

I wrote a comment to that effect, and probably worded things a bit more harshly than I intended to.  I also picked on one particular gaming system, and it's fans in general, which is something I should have qualified a bit better to explain why I felt that way.  It was a knee-jerk reaction (emphasis on the "jerk"), and I apologize for how it was worded, but I should explain my position and the reasons of my ire.

Here's the link to the post on House of Paincakes, and my comment below:

"Only 8 attendees for a Masterclass with Justin McCoy??? There's something seriously wrong with that number. Is it just me, or are there more and more gamers who just don't give a crap about playing with nicely painted models? 

I blame WarmaHordes... every tournament I've witnessed of those systems has a ratio of 1 painted army to about 12 unpainted or simply primered ones. The ones that ARE painted are usually gorgeous, but most PP gamers simply don't care about what their models LOOK like, just what they do in the game."

To be fair, EVERY game system has players who couldn't care less what their models looked like.  Every game system has players who don't think anything is amiss if they field a mess of reflective bare metal models and legions of dull grey plastic.

But what is it about Warmachine and Hordes players that seems to encourage a total disregard for miniature painting?  Or conversions?  Or doing much of anything to inject character and life into their models?

I guess I'm making a gross example of WarmaHordes players based solely off my own personal experiences with their gaming crowd.  As far as gaming is concerned, I'm not particularly widely travelled, and I can only judge based off of what I've seen in my neck of the woods.  But what I've seen are in-store gaming nights where one player in twelve actually has paint on their models.  And large tournaments where only 6-8 players fielded half painted armies, and only 3-4 players had fully painted armies.  The vast majority of players seem to have done nothing to their models except glue the parts together, and maybe marked the facings on the bases.

By contrast, the local tournaments for Infinity, Malifaux, Flames of War, Warhammer 40K and Fantasy are bursting with colour.  FoW models have intricate unit markings painted on tiny little tanks.  Infinity and Malifaux models are usually well painted and mounted to amazingly atmospheric bases.  And even the "worst" painted miniatures in the GW tournaments show incredibly characterful conversions and fantastical army display stands.

I'm no Infinity, Malifaux, or FoW player, but I do have a Warmachine army (fully painted), and a number of 40K and Fantasy armies (in various stages of painting, but a number of them are fully painted and proudly occupy a glass fig case at home).

You certainly can't blame the Privateer Press studio.  Just about every miniature they put out is amazing in detail, pose, and character.  They employ some of the most talented sculptors and in-house painters in the industry.  Their models certainly do not compare badly in any way to those produced by other miniature gaming companies.

A PP model I painted years ago.  Fantastic sculpt, and so much fun to paint!
And check out fellow Vancouverite Arthur Nicholson's blog for some gorgeous PP fully painted models that he games with quite often.
But let's put aside my confusion regarding end-use of their models for a second.  Let me tell you why I think miniature painting is an integral part of our hobby, and explain why I'm so passionate about the hobby as a whole (gaming + painting).

I didn't start off buying miniatures for the sole purpose of painting them.  I bought them to game with.  Way back in the '80s, my cousin got me hooked on the very first edition of a role-playing game called "Gamma World".  This led (of course) to me playing and hosting games of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.  My first miniatures were cast from lead, and represented my characters and the various monsters that they encountered.  We moved them about on a wet-erase grid map, and handled them with fingers stained with cheese dust and pop.

Later, one of my friends picked up copies of the original Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader and Warhammer Fantasy rulebooks, and we marvelled at the idea of controlling entire armies of miniatures (such as they were at the time... no giant games of Apocalypse for us.  An army consisted of a handful of whatever models we had).  There was a rudimentary introduction to painting miniatures in the book, and after picking up a few issues of White Dwarf magazine, some Testors enamel paints and crappy synthetic brushes, and the now legendary RT1 plastic Space Marine boxed set, I tried my hand at miniature painting.

I was SO proud of these when I did them. Freehand and shading... awesome!

Once I learned how to drybrush, I drybrushed EVERYTHING!!!
Enamel paints, and my first attempts at washes.  Oh, and real blood on the weapons (I accidentally cut my finger, and thought, "Why not?")

To put it bluntly and honestly, I sucked at painting miniatures.  Sure, I can blame the poor tools and choice of paints I had at the time (oil based enamels and brushes that were too cheap to sell at a dollar store?), but I lacked any skill, training, planning, or patience.  But the crazy thing was, I was damn proud of those first paintjobs.

And I kept at it.  Pre-internet, all I had to go off of was the occasional painting article in White Dwarf (painters of my era will always owe a huge debt to Mike McVey and the rest of the Eavy Metal team).  No one else I knew was painting miniatures either.  I continued to stink, but every time I learned a new skill (OMG!  Drybrushing!!!!), I got really excited and proudly showed off my models to everyone I gamed with.

But I was still a gamer, first and foremost.  It wasn't something that competed with miniature painting.  They went hand-in-hand for me.  I spent a considerable amount of time poring over army lists, reading and re-reading rules books (you had to, otherwise the rules lawyers would annoy the heck out of you every time), and alternating playing games of miniature games and pen-and-paper RPGs.  I even managed to get competent enough at the gaming aspect to win a few tournaments and write an on-going wargaming column on one of the earliest and definitely one of the highest traffic-ed hubs of the gaming internet: Portent.  But I also painted whenever I had some quiet time to myself, and whenever I wanted to field a new unit at my next game night.

And I wasn't the only one in my gaming circle that painted their miniatures.  We all painted models.  It was just viewed as part of the hobby, and another aspect that we all loved about it.  Every game night was a mutual admiration love-fest, as we scrutinized each other's latest paintjobs and commented on them.  And while we poked fun at each other's sense of style once in awhile (I still recall my buddy Rob fielding a Space Marine captain with a sculpted afro and disco riser boots.  He got ribbed about it constantly, but it only made him smile with satisfaction), we also complimented each other all the time.

Pardon me for getting nostalgic for a moment, but those were great, great days of gaming.  We quickly learned that the easiest way to beat my friend Mike was to target his most recently painted miniature / unit, and wipe it out on the first turn.  He would be so incensed for the rest of the game, that he completely lost track of any mission objectives and would simply rush his models across the table in search of revenge.

My friend Darren had this one unit of Guardsmen that he painted in orange tiger stripe.  They were simply garish and utterly atrocious to look at, but he took so much pride in them that they always showed up to battle every game.  Despite having the exact same stats as every other unit of generic Guardsmen, they were somehow "elite" and special to him.

My buddy Derek was the star painter of our group.  His Ultramarine army was simply a treat to gaze upon.  I never really cared if I won or lost a game against him... it was just a pleasure to check out his army, ogle his latest paintjobs, and bug him for painting tips.  The experience of playing against such a magnificent looking army was like going out on a date with a supermodel.  The game was fun, but it was much more than just a game.

I have judged many miniature painting scores for various Warhammer Fantasy, Warhammer 40K, and the occasional WarmaHordes tournament.  In order to engage the gamers, I ask each and every one of them to point out the models in their army that they are most proud of.  Even the most inexperienced painter's eyes light up when they get asked this question, and they get really excited when picking up their current favourite models to describe the conversions done to it, what aspects turned out better than they had expected, and the challenges they faced while painting it. 

A fantastic Nurgle army at the 2013 Wet Coast Grand Tournament

An anime style Tau army at the 2013 Wet Coast Grand Tournament

My buddy Nick's Guard army at the 2013 Wet Coast Grand Tournament

Painted models have more personality.  They are infused with a tangible amount of the owner's character.  They aren't just mere chits or chess pieces, but tiny little avatars of the gamer.  They are our representatives on the battlefield.  They proudly take to the field in our colours, and when they die, we are definitely more invested in their heroic ends.

Now ask the owner of an unpainted army if they have ever felt that same pride and sense of ownership when they deployed their models across the gaming table.  Have they ever had their opponent whistle in appreciation at seeing a great looking army?  Have they ever had an opponent ask if they could pick up one of their models to get a closer look at it, and then say, "Wow, really nice work, man"?  Or has anyone asked them for painting tips mid-game, or perhaps asked them how they achieved a particular conversion?

I doubt it.  Because their army looks like every other effing bare metal / plastic army out there.  It has nothing to set itself apart, and it shows no effort or care from its owner.  Frankly, it's BORING.

Would you be excited to play against this army?  Or proud to display it if it was your own?
And how the heck do two opponents tell each others models apart if they both field unpainted identical armies?


If you can't be bothered to paint your models, or convert your models, or do anything except glue the arms on and shove the tabs into the slots, then why the heck are you playing a miniatures game anyway?  You are missing out on so much more.

This hobby isn't just gaming.  It's the background story.  It's the terrain.  It's the shared "in-the-trenches" experience of struggling to paint fricking eyes on a model that's only one damn inch tall.  It's the sheer spectacle of seeing two colourful armies of miniatures raging back and forth across a fully realized 3d representation of a battlefield.  This hobby is AWESOME, and if all you do is game, then you are depriving yourself (and your opponent) of at least half of what this hobby is all about.

Now let me step back for a second, and say that while I think an unpainted army is boring, that's not to say that you can't still have quite a bit of fun while gaming with one.  Gamers with unpainted armies are not necessarily boring to play against either.  It's just that it's not the full experience of miniature gaming, just like watching a good silent movie is not the full cinematic experience of movie enjoyment.  Try watching your favourite movie on mute and with close captioning on, and see what I mean (c'mon... what would Star Wars be like without the John Williams soundtrack?).

So I'm not going to say that I will never play against someone with an unpainted army.  And I'm not saying that everyone HAS to play with painted armies in order to enjoy gaming.  But what I AM saying is that gaming without at least attempting to paint an army makes me just a little sad, because the gamer who never tries their hand at painting will never understand the pride and sense of accomplishment that a fully realized hobbyist (gamer / painter) will.

 Let me finish this rant by recalling a time when I heard a Privateer Press Ganger (a Warmachine / Hordes enthusiast whose job is to grow the hobby and the game's fan base) say that he much preferred the "clean" look of an unpainted army to that of a "badly" painted one.  It's a sentiment that I heard an echo of when Von spoke of armies "ruined to meet a three colour standard".

Let's think about how that might come across to a beginner who is considering trying his hand at painting, or worse yet, to a beginner who has JUST started painting, and is uncertain as to how people may react to his first attempts.

Yup.  It's a tad insensitive to tell people that you'd rather they just left their models unpainted, isn't it?

We all suck at the beginning.  No one produces a Golden Demon winning paintjob on their very first try.  But rough paintjobs are the necessary first step towards getting better, and no one should be self-conscious or embarrassed of their early paintjobs.

Even Matt Wilson, founder of Privateer Press, has admitted to painting miniatures badly.  Years ago, my buddy Zac started a website called, "Tabletop Gaming News" ("TGN" for short, which he later sold to Coolminiornot), and asked his readers to submit questions that they wanted to ask Matt.  Almost all the questions that were selected were submitted by "hard core" Warmachine gamers who were asking all sorts of rules clarifications and questions about game play.  However, Zac also included two questions of mine: "Do you think miniature painting will ever be more widely accepted as art?", and "Do you paint miniatures, and can we see them?"

Now Matt Wilson is a 2D artist of astounding talent.  His work has been used in Dungeons and Dragons, Magic the Gathering, and Warmachine / Hordes (of course).  He has won awards, and his pieces have been featured in such esteemed publications such as Spectrum.  The strange thing was, he admitted to having a number of painted miniatures, admitted that they had definite flaws, and declined to share them publicly. 

To me, that's a shame.  He could have inspired many new painters, and shown them that even the founder of their favourite game company was just a regular guy when it came to learning the ropes of miniature painting.  Instead, his chosen representatives in the gaming community are telling people that unpainted models are nicer looking than beginner painted ones.

And I think that's the wrong message.  Our hobby needs gamers who are bold enough to try painting, even if they know their first few attempts will likely be very rough.  Just as civilized society in general needs art in order to have soul, I think that miniature gaming in general needs miniature painting in order to have personality and life.

And for frick's sake, when you have a chance to take a class taught by an insanely talented and experienced painter / teacher, all for the price of a single unpainted plastic GW character model, make sure you take it!!!