Miniature painting maxims that have helped me for the past three years

I like maxims and I like self-reflection. This post combines the two: a little look at some of the maxims that have served me well over the past three years of painting, and some reflection on them — especially in light of actually getting to play.

Any progress is progress

Since I got properly into miniature painting in 2020, I’ve done something to make forward progress on miniatures every single day. Sometimes I’ll go months where I’m literally scraping one tiny piece of mold line just to check that box, but those periods are banking the fire so that it doesn’t go out entirely. This isn’t my only hobby, and when something else is bringing me more joy I do that instead.

But it all adds up. Never stopping means always moving forward, sometimes in tiny increments and sometimes in fevered painting frenzies, and eventually painted forces and terrain start to emerge and multiply.

John C. Maxwell had it 100% right: “Little progress is better than no progress at all.”

I need the prospect of play for motivation

My motivation to paint isn’t solely dependent on playing — I painted for three years before playing my first game with models I’d painted — but it’s a huge factor. I enjoy painting for its own sake; the act itself is fun. But knowing that I’ll be able to play a game with all the stuff I’m painting is the X factor that keeps me coming back to the painting table.

Every time I’ve had a game on my calendar, I’ve kicked into painting overdrive. I spent hours before my first Kill Team game wrapping up the combat gauges and barriers, and then did the same thing again before my second game — a 6.5-hour push to finish a piece of terrain.

It’s almost comical how much “I get to use this stuff!” motivates me.

Paint for arm’s length

I’ve always said that I paint my minis for viewing at arm’s length. That doesn’t mean I phone it in: It takes me five hours to take the average model from sprue to varnished and ready to play. That number likely sounds appallingly low to some painters and appallingly high to others, but it’s the right number for me.

I do get closer than arm’s length to all my minis during play, of course. There’s real joy in getting an eyeball right up behind a tiny head to see what’s in the unit’s line of sight! But much of the game is played at arm’s length.

I also use a magnifier when I paint — though as infrequently as possible. Under good magnification, every miniature I paint needs hours more work than I can give it if I ever want to finish. But if I don’t magnify, I can better balance doing my best and actually finishing stuff.

Write everything down

I’ve been writing painting notes and color guides since 2020, and it’s paid off so many times. Just this past week I finished a terrain piece I’d started in, like, 2021. I could tell where I’d left off and knew how to finish it in a way that was consistent with my existing pieces because I’d written it all down.

I get a lot of mileage out of color guides other folks share, so I also like sharing mine in a format that I hope is easy to follow.

It has to get to the table

So many of my creative endeavors owe a debt to Voltaire: “Perfect is the enemy of good.”

I try to do my best work on every model, but also balance that with eventually finishing the fucking thing. I paint partly to paint and partly to play, so I want my stuff to get to the table…which it can’t if I take a million hours on every model and lose all my motivation to keep going.

Spray terrain, but not figures

I’ve been burned by spray varnish a few times over the years, so when I started painting in 2020 I committed myself to avoiding rattle cans. I brush on my primer (Vallejo matte white) and sealant (Vallejo matte), even though it takes longer, because I have complete control, zero dependence on the weather outside, and a 0% chance of having the temperature or humidity ruin a model.

The exception is terrain, which I spray with Citadel’s primer/base coat rattle cans. Here in Seattle the weather’s only good for spraying minis about 1/3 of the year, so I tend to spray a raft of terrain in the summer and then stash it for future use.

I also made an exception for an army which it seemed silly not to spray: Custodes, which I base-coated gold in one 2,000-point batch. Which leads me to…

Don’t paint in large batches

I told myself not to do this early on, and I’ve only broken this rule once — to my detriment. I have a 2,000-point Custodes army which is 100% based in gold, and has its gold shaded, with a handful of figures further along than that…and it’s largely sat just like that for more than 18 months. Every time I get them out, I feel exhausted at the prospect of working on them.

My usual process is to base coat the whole model, which narrows down from “paint it all” to “paint what’s still white” as I progress, and then to touch up the base coat before shading. Having batch-painted my Custodes torpedoed both of those stages: I hate looking at a solid gold model and hunting for the stuff to paint over, and I hate painting base coats next to shaded work.

Five models is a good number for me to be working on simultaneously at any given stage of the process, or ten at the most. Like right now on my painting mat I’ve got three Tyranid Warriors at the wash stage, five Grey Knights that need priming, and four crates I just varnished. When I want to work on minis, I have three manageable batches from which to choose.

Try not to be hard on myself

I’m notoriously hard on myself about my paint jobs. I have to make a conscious effort not to be, especially as I gain experience and my detail work improves.

But actually playing with my painted minis has made it significantly easier not to sweat it. During the four games I’ve played with my models to date (BattleTech, 40k, Kill Team x2), not once have I been disappointed with my work or thought, “Man, I wish I’d painted that better.”

I’m not thinking about the imperfections, I’m just having a blast playing a game with my opponent and enjoying a table full of painted stuff.

The Rule of Cool still rules

When I assemble a mini, the Rule of Cool prevails — from wargear choices to pose, I do whatever I think is cool. I do look at the rules and let them inform some of my choices, and I’ve noticed an uptick in that after actually playing (which makes sense), but Rule of Cool usually trumps optimal loadouts.

Similarly, I often like big, sprawling, dramatic poses…which are a real detriment in Kill Team, for example, because they make the model easier to see from more angles. But in play? I’ve never once thought, “I wish I’d made that dude more boring so he’d be harder to shoot.”

The same goes for wargear choices. For example: Both of my Tactical Marine fire team leader choices for Kill Team have a pistol and a melee weapon, and after two games I kind of wish at least one of them had a Bolter instead. But I’d rather just paint up a third leader than fret about my Rule of Cool-driven choices.

Painted models are worth the effort

This is Miniature Painting 101, but it wasn’t obvious to me until I actually played. Almost all of my wargaming until this year has been played with unpainted minis or cardboard tokens/models, plus the occasional game with factory prepainted models.

When everything on the table is painted, my mind is there. I immerse myself and try to live the battle no mater whether stuff is painted or not, but it’s much easier, and unlocks a higher level of immersion, when everything is painted. And I’d take any player’s best efforts over any factory prepaint; the personal investment also makes a difference.

That investment is key for me, too. I feel invested in my army — the one I sweated over for an average of five hours per model, trying to push my skills and stay motivated — in a way that’s unlike my investment in any other style of game.

That’s all I can think of for now. Happy painting!

July 14, 2023 update: I forgot one, naturally — and it’s a biggie. I gave it its own post, but TL;DR it boils down to your old and new paint jobs not matching up being a good thing.

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