A MINIATURE REVOLUTION
In our debut issue Luke Shaw wrote about the sense of community he’d found online amongst miniature painters during lockdown. Intrigued by what the future holds, Shaw speaks to four pro-painters who are pushing things forward.
One of the quainter pieces of tabletop gaming history is that Peter Cushing, the veteran Hammer Horror and Star Wars actor, was both an avid miniature painter and wargamer. Long before our shelves heaved with Space Marines and Orcs, Cushing conducted regiments of tiny soldiers across the tabletop following the rules of Little Wars and Floor Games, one of the earliest commercial wargames, written by sci-fi author H.G. Wells.
Cushing commissioned his models, some five thousand or so, from miniature maestro Frederick Ping, and would spend the downtime between vampiric blockbusters lovingly painting them. It was a practice that by all accounts he found incredibly therapeutic. This was all in the 1950s.
Fast Forward to 2021 and here I am, painting miniatures, and much like Cushing finding it incredibly therapeutic too. Of course the world is vastly different now, in fact it's barely recognisable from the late '90s when I first entered the hobby.
Not only are the miniatures more detailed, mind-blowing in both concept and execution, but the paint jobs are leagues beyond anything I ever imagined as a teen. Whilst the Golden Demon winners of the past are still hugely impressive, the skill of the average painter has progressed in leaps and bounds.
Once, you'd struggle to find advice on how to even prime your miniatures anywhere outside of hard to come by books and the well thumbed pages of Citadel painting guides. Now we have Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, Reddit and a wealth of other sites from which to glean free advice on everything from glazing to two brush blending, stippling, edge-highlighting, free hand and so much more.
Today there are painters who are truly world famous in the hobby community, more than capable of transforming their talent with a paint brush into a career. Where many painters, myself included, came from an era of only seeing perfectly painted minis in White Dwarf, our timelines are now filled with competition level pieces. The internet has truly widened, and deepened, the talent pool but I find myself wondering, has it also changed the way we both paint and approach our hobby?
Whilst I have my own suspicions I was keen to hear from painters who actually know what they're talking about, the pros who actually make a living from all this and have, in turn, taken to passing on their skills to the layperson. So, collecting my thoughts, I sat down to speak to four such people, Amy Snuggs, full-time painter for Siege Studios, Dana Howl, creator of incredible video tutorials and Brent Amberger and Scott Walter who, respectively, run the YouTube channels Goobertown Hobbies and Miniac.
First of all, given that Warhammer is a game that often attracts people who may have little interest in painting, and painting miniatures is a hobby that equally attracts many people with zero interest in wargaming, I was curious whether they painted models for display or for play.
For Snuggs her job as a commission painter requires both though as she explained, 'I probably fall into mainly painting for display because I don’t play!'
That focus on display rather than play was something the others recognised. 'I started painting minis because my friends played Warhammer,' said Amberger. 'As time went on, I realised that I like the [painting] hobby more than the games. I spend way more time painting than playing now.’
This rang true for Howl too who despite a background playing wargames admitted that whilst 'in theory I paint only for the tabletop, given how I haven't actually played a game in several years, I guess I paint for display? Let's say I paint for my own pleasure,' she concluded.
Of the four it was Miniac’s Scott Walter who was still most likely to aim for the table. 'It’s hard to say if I paint more for display or for gaming,' he said. 'But my background is in gaming. I'll say that I'm generally more excited about painting models for gaming than I am for display purposes,’ a process Walter finds can be ‘very pedantic.’
I was curious whether these painters, and tutorial creators, believed that the overall quality had increased significantly over the last five to ten years, and what effect the proliferation of miniature painters and tutorials on the internet had had.
“IF YOU COMPARE GOLDEN DEMON WINNERS FROM 2004 TO 2019 THE DIFFERENCE IS IMMENSE”
'Absolutely it has gotten better,' Walter agreed. 'If you compare Golden Demon winners from 2004 to 2019 the difference is immense. That isn't a slight at all to people who painted in 2005. They were operating with the knowledge they had and were improving constantly. I'm sure in 2035 we'll look back at 2020 and think similar thoughts. It's the natural progression of things.'
'Instagram, YouTube, and other social media platforms have all been a driving factor,' believes Amberger.
Snuggs concurs, 'I think a lot of that can be due to more people getting into the hobby and more ways to learn and improve available than ever before.
'The internet has absolutely helped that,' added Snuggs. 'The ability to watch videos, tutorials, get tuition, observe and be inspired by other people’s work and also getting feedback from others has definitely helped lots of people improve and progress.’
Amberger believes that the quality of these tutorials is a huge boon to the community, not only due to accessibility, but also due to how the culture around sharing advice as changed. '15 years ago you had to learn from the deceptive 4-panel tutorials in the game magazines. “Draw two ovals. Draw two triangles. Now finish the rest of the owl."’ he laughs. 'Now there are piles of narrated HD video tutorials from professionals on any topic, or specific model, that you want and in a variety of different teaching styles, whilst people are talking and sharing tips on Facebook and Discord and Twitch.'
This glut of material online has definitely been a ‘massive source of inspiration’ for Amberger. ‘It helps mini painters discover new styles, techniques, and colour combinations. It's also inspiring just to see how beautiful our models can really be!’
'The accessibility of youtube is making all of us better at any skill we put our minds to,' agrees Howl. 'I'm very much a visual learner, so I never understood how to paint until I started following YouTube tutorials.’
Howl is also though aware of that these benefits come with their own pitfalls and pointed out how the advanced techniques on display can be both a good and a bad thing. 'We might push ourselves harder to outdo our friend's paint jobs, or learn from them,’ she explains, ‘but also we might feel a lot of pressure for everything we paint to be a lot more perfect because it's going online. It's a double edged sword but ultimately I think it's for the better!’
Snuggs agrees that there is a certain, if perhaps self-imposed, pressure that comes with uploading photos of your minis to social media. ‘Taking photos to share online has definitely affected the way I paint,' Snuggs admitted and knowing how they can be examined in minute detail has also led to Snuggs being more selective over exactly what she shares.
'I often take photos, zoom in and identify areas where I need to correct mistakes and check how it looks in photos before posting,’ she adds. ‘I feel like things should be at a certain standard. I’ve also painted some things for myself that I haven’t posted online because they were only quick paint jobs and I guess part of me feels they don’t fit a certain standard I’m happy to share. I’m very overly critical of my own work though, so part of all of that may be down to perfectionism!’
If it’s clear that the internet has improved the overall quality of model painting, at least of the photos we share online, I wondered if they felt that social media was also changing how we paint. As popular accounts discuss techniques and materials that are perhaps less known, these discoveries and tutorials disseminate through the online network of painters, both professional and amateur.
Amberger agrees 'It's possible to watch in real time as the community as a whole learns about new tools, materials and techniques,’ he says. ‘Certain topics and keywords will spike as they “get discovered” and become popular. Acrylic washes, wet palettes, airbrushes, contrast paints are all examples of techniques that went from obscure to commonplace.'
‘Right now people seem to be discovering oil paints as if they were some new miracle product,’ he adds. ‘Obviously, artists and individual mini painters have known about all these techniques for a long time but it's fun to watch these topics diffuse out amongst the wider community.’
I was interested in how this might be popularising, often extremely time consuming or niche, techniques such as perfect edge highlighting, non-metallic metals, object source lighting and so on.
‘I think people are maybe more aware of certain styles and there’s more accessibility to view other people’s work now and be inspired by it so in turn that results in more people trying things out or emulating a certain style,’ said Snuggs. ‘There’s so much inspiration out there and so many different avenues to take for learning and improving now, which I think is a fantastic thing.’
There has been some talk as to whether this is pushing painters towards styles more designed to be viewed online rather than in hand but Walter disagrees.
‘I think this question is getting at how NMM “only works from certain angles” but that's not really true. Sure, the painted specular highlights don't move when you shift the object around but great artists like Andy Wardle and Kirill Kanaev can work around that to paint subjects that look wonderful in the hand. Additionally, GW has been painting in that style for a very long time.’
Whilst this means the wider hobby community now often tends to discover new things in unison, what’s interesting is that instead of leading to more homogenisation we’re instead seeing a greater, and indeed wilder, range of styles and colour schemes on display then ever before.
In the past when Games Workshop’s 'Eavy Metal tutorials and White Dwarf articles were the main places people would go for tutorials this often resulted in painting styles, outside of competition entries, seeming more rote, and by the numbers.
People without strong artistic backgrounds would be hard pushed to spend the time and money to experiment with John Blanche style oil painting, or the more vibrant styles employed by Howl and Games Workshop's own Louise Sugden. Today a look online will reveal a dizzying array of styles to try, with new ideas appearing all the time.
Speaking to these professional painters it’s clear their responses reflect my own experiences. The internet has changed the way people paint things, and that's no bad thing at all. Whilst it can look intimidating to newcomers at times, the hobby is in the best, and most welcoming, place it's ever been and the pool of people sharing their models is ever widening.
Whilst certain names and faces pop up regularly, it’s a remarkably democratic scene and seasoned pros and up and coming amateur rub shoulders online, lifting each other up. Even Games Workshop now regularly pick out models to share on their streams, and not just potential Golden Demon winners but models from painters representing the breadth of the community.
Still there's no telling where model painting will go in the next 20 to 30 years and Walter recalled something he heard that’s made him think about how the internet is changing our approach to the hobby. 'Pro-painter Ben Kantor said in an interview with Warhammer Weekly’s Vince Venturella, that today “the photos are the end result of your painting, not the model itself.”’
It’s an interesting point and raises the question that if the photo becomes the end result what then happens to your models? Maybe, Walter suggests ‘we shouldn't be afraid to totally strip our paint jobs after we've gotten sufficient photos of them, right?’ He sounds unconvinced though. ‘Most painters are still emotionally linked to the physical outcome of their work preventing them from doing something like that. I know personally I wouldn't ever want to do that.'
I agree but the thought experiment is interesting, and we’re already seeing the truth of Venturella’s statement, and its logical next step, with the increased popularity of ‘paintovers’. This technique sees painted models combined with digital painting to create stunning dioramas, sometimes even featuring animated effects. Digital artist Scott Sez, who creates such ‘paintovers’ under the name Artists Empire was even featured in a recent issue of White Dwarf alongside several of his pieces.
Are 'Paintovers', like this by Artists Empire of Nick Bayton's Titan, the future of model painting?
THIS TECHNIQUE SEES PAINTED MODELS COMBINED WITH DIGITAL PAINTING TO CREATE STUNNING DIORAMAS, SOMETIMES EVEN INCLUDING ANIMATED EFFECTS
Who knows, maybe in the future we'll be able to quickly scan our minis and obsess over details from millimetres away in VR or watch them march across the table, maybe new styles will evolve that are totally counter to our current ideas of what is good, or worthy of a first place at a competition.
Either way, miniature painting certainly isn't going anywhere, in fact it’s more popular than ever. Techniques, even mediums, may change but I hope one day people look back on us like we look back at Peter Cushing, with wonder and admiration for what we achieved, and the community we’ve built.
If there’s one takeaway I got from speaking to these painters it’s how we are all taking part in something greater than our own contributions. We propel each other forward and whilst technology might be driving things now, the real force for improvement is a sense of communal achievement.
This feature originally appeared in Wyrd Science Vol.1 / Issue 2