By Trent Denison
When people ask me questions like “Have you got any tricks to be better?” or “How did you get so fast at painting?” my default response is: you need practice. It’s a true statement, but I thought I would expand and break down some of the how.
Zone of Learning
This is a pretty basic model of the way a human being learns things: If you take a basic task like making yourself a coffee with your own machine at your house, generally speaking, most people don’t have to think about this at all. It is a task that can be completed without any challenge. This is an example of the comfort zone.
Now imagine being put in front of a thousand dollar machine that a trained barista might use? Most people simply wouldn’t be able to use it correctly, or if they tried the coffee probably wouldn’t come out nice, or even at all. This is the panic zone. The most important thing about this zone is that the default human response is to go into fight or flight mode. You won’t learn anything, you will just look for a way to get yourself out of this situation.
However, what if you simply decided to upgrade your machine so it has a couple of new features, like maybe a little attachment that heats up your milk, but is basically similar to your old machine? Welcome to the zone of learning. You will feel a little uncomfortable here, particularly if it is the first time you’ve tried using your machine, but after a couple of tries, maybe a bit of spilt milk, you will be making a better coffee in no time.
Miniature painting is no different. It’s a learned skill, but if you are at the stage where you’ve just learnt how to dilute your paint correctly, or started to shade and highlight, I guarantee you that painting a model with NMM and OSL from two different light sources is going to slide you right into the panic zone.
The most important point about this is that reaching too far above what you are comfortable doing is probably not going to help you improve much as a miniature painter. It’s definitely still better than no practice at all, because at least you are developing a tactile feeling of diluting paint on a palette, paint coming off the brush or just what colours look like. It’s all going to give you experience, but in terms of application and technique, it’s reaching too far.
The panic zone in miniature painting is going to make you look at your work and feel like shit that you can’t achieve something. BUT, if you stay in your comfort zone, and keep doing things that you know you can do…. You won’t improve.
The lesson: Challenge yourself with one thing new on each project. Maybe something like painting a colour you don’t like to use, or couple of paints from a new range, or a different technique like wet blending or loaded brush. Don’t reach too far!
Skill Ceiling vs Knowledge Ceiling
Another common misconception comes from “taking classes” or “signing up for a Patreon”. This is absolutely going to help you improve as a painter… if you have the right skillset and capability to implement the teaching.
Unfortunately when most people take a class or watch painting videos, they expect immediate improvement. Or, they go back to their painting desk with enthusiasm to do something completely different, and reach the panic zone in a matter of minutes (see above).
When you take in knowledge, it does not translate into ability. Because despite the type of learning (audio, visual or written), this does not give you the ability to retain and implement that learning. You need to take that information from your brain and program it into your hands. And you achieve that by simply… doing.
This chart shows exactly how much information people retain from the different types of learning. And even more importantly, if you are learning information that sits way outside of your comfort zone, it’s likely that you will retain even less than that.
Sometimes, you will have the opposite problem. You will feel like you are executing things exactly as you see them in your brain, and that is the moment you should go to a class, or sign up to a new Patreon and see a new approach. This ties into the zone of learning.
The lesson: Understand when it is important to learn more, and when it is important to practice more.
Bob Ross: “We don’t make mistakes, we just have happy accidents.’’
Mistakes are one of the most important moments in any type of learning. It’s like a little challenge every time you make one, which helps you to improve. However, what is hardest to do when making a mistake is embracing it. Most people dread it: about to start the last stages of painting their model, trying some great freehand on a tattoo… and you get paint way out of the lines, and ruin all the nice work you did underneath.
Here is the thing you have to remember: There is almost literally NOTHING you can do to a miniature that you cannot fix. The absolute worst case scenario, breaking a model into many pieces or paint chips everywhere… you could strip it, or even buy a new one. I concede if its a piece you can no longer purchase, or an original sculpt, or you drop it into acid… sure. It’s fucked.
But most mistakes are far less serious than that. Mostly they are just… putting paint in the wrong spot. That is something you can correct. If you are quick enough, you can take a moist brush (not wet, moist), and soften out the mistake. In fact… this correction often has a sneaky benefit. If you accidentally get red paint from a cloak onto the skintone you spent forever on, and you soften it out quickly enough, then you probably still have red tinges on the skin. Believe it or not, this is actually true to life, thanks to the way that light works. It bounces off things and adds shades and colours all around. Things never exist in a vacuum. That little bit of red on the skin will create a sense of harmony between the two areas, it will add natural variation and nuance. You might need to paint over a couple of little bits that dried too quickly, but the end result will be an improved product.
So why worry about making mistakes? Once again, I draw back to the zone of learning. Making mistakes is going to give you little lessons along the way. Embrace the mistakes and treat them as a positive in your painting.
Ultimately, the goal in this hobby is to HAVE FUN. Everything that I talk about in this article should bring you back to this one fact. I paint because I love to paint. I love creating little stories, and having something that helps me relax, and feel positive. Because I have fun when I do it, I keep doing it more. When you do something more, you get better at it. So enjoying painting is crucial to improving, and fixating on mistakes will take away some of the joy. Mistakes are opportunities to learn and get better.
The lesson: Worrying about mistakes makes you enjoy what you are doing less. Paint more, learn from mistakes and have fun so you keep wanting to paint more.
One thing I do a lot of is post pictures for feedback. Contrary to popular opinion, this is not for the purposes of social media epeen competitions, although I do like to drop a few bombs on occasion.
The purpose is to actively seek constructive feedback on all aspects of a piece I am working on. Very rarely is it possible to disassociate the model you are painting, the amount of hours and effort invested, and the actual quality and technical aspects of it. We are blind to our own habits and mistakes sometimes, and it’s only when others call us out on them that we become aware. Positive feedback might help keep you enthusiastic about a project, which is great, but it’s really negative feedback that I want to get, and here is why.
First, I want to explain the four stages of competence.
Let’s say you are learning to juggle. Usually we start any task like juggling at Unconscious Incompetence. Or, as I like to describe it: You are shit, but you don’t even realise you are shit. In this case, you’ve never seen juggling before, but you watched a guy do it and want to try it. Welcome to Unconscious Incompetence.
Conscious Incompetence is the next stage. Someone or something has caused you to be aware of the mistake, issue or error you are making, and suddenly you know what you are doing wrong. This is a crucial stage, because without this information, we don’t even know we need to improve. In our juggling example, you’ve picked up three balls and thrown them up in the air, and realised that you actually have no idea how to do it.
Conscious Competence follows, and this is you working on improving at the task or process. The important part of this stage is that you have to remind yourself of the processes continually, and consciously think about how to perform the task correctly. For the juggling example, it’s a matter of counting out numbers and timing the tempo of your throws to these numbers (so I learned to juggle, so what? Fight me)
Final stage, and what many people consider the ultimate goal, Unconscious Competence. You pick up three juggling balls and start nailing it and talk to your mates while you do it. You don’t even need to think any more, it just happens.
A quick final note on Unconscious Competence. I feel like technical tasks like paint dilution and paintbrush use it’s important to reach this stage, but for something like colour selection or theory, you should always try to force yourself back into Conscious Competence, and actively thinking about WHY you do things. It will help you understand a lot more of your thought processes and continue to improve.
Bringing it back to painting, getting negative or constructive feedback is important. Without hearing things that have room for improvement (and as I said, we often are blind to things due to our own perspective), you can sit in Unconscious Incompetence and never even know you need to fix them. By getting feedback, you can establish awareness of an issue, and consciously make an effort to fix it. Now whether you agree with the feedback or not, and decide to fix it or not, those are choices you can make armed with the information that you have been given. I rarely take on board everything that I hear back about my pieces, but it’s rare for me to change nothing about a piece either.
Of course, it’s not always easy to embrace negative feedback. The default, immediate response when someone criticises hours of effort is defensive, to fire back a salvo about why that person is wrong. It’s normal and completely expected to have a twinge of disappointment when you hear someone thinks your work sucks or has something bad to say about it, especially if it’s work you’ve put hours of effort into and sacrificed time from other parts of your life for.
The hardest thing to do is step back and look at what the person is saying logically and non emotively. When you do this, you can start to really analyse your work more effectively. After you’ve been buried in painting something brushstroke by brushstroke, sometimes it just takes a tiny little observation that someone else makes to get the ball rolling on how the piece can be better.
The lesson: Seeking constructive negative feedback is crucial to understand areas and opportunities for improvement that you may not have been aware of. Embrace this feedback as a great opportunity, and not as an attack.
I used to work with a guy who was a bodybuilder. He was a massive guy, all rippling muscle. One day I asked him how on earth his body looked that good. Every day he got up and spent three hours at the gym in the morning before he went to work. He strictly controlled his diet, rarely if ever having meals that were bad for his ultimate goal of being completely shredded. He also spent some of the afternoon in the gym as well.
I wanted to be a specimen like him, so I gave it a crack, and unsurprisingly I failed. I liked my sleep way too much. Any person in the world has the ability to have a body that looked like that guy, so why doesn’t everyone? The answer is sacrifice.
Not everyone is willing to sacrifice doing the things they enjoy, or possesses the ability to dedicate themselves purely to a task and follow through. It’s a learned skill like any other, but sometimes people just want to mung on a Big Mac, or take a night off the gym to go hang out with mates.
Welcome to the unfortunate reality of setting a goal. Everyone seems to be time poor these days, and a lot of people tell me they don’t have time to paint. Most of the time what they are really saying is “I don’t prioritise painting enough to make time for it”. If you wanted to get right into the heart of the matter, if something is important enough to you, you will make the time, usually by giving up something else.
For the guy I used to work with, it was giving up a few hours of sleep every day, and eating the things he used to eat. For me, it is giving up some time watching TV (and also, the gym LOL) to spend a few hours painting every night. I do it before I go to bed, to the point now where it becomes a routine the I look forward to. It is a quiet, relaxing time that I enjoy.
Not everyone has the luxury of being able to choose to paint every day, with the pressures of work, of families, of friendships. But being able to improve at something will almost always requires sacrifice of something else. The important thing is recognising that fact.
So we arrive at the point of this section. You need to understand what you want to achieve out of your painting. If your goal is to win a medal a painting competition, then you know that dedication and diligence is the only way to improve, and you will need to sacrifice something to find that time to work on it. If your goal is to have fun while painting, the sacrifice needed is probably significantly less. If your goal is to improve so you can paint your army for a game, or paint your first bust, or paint a model, all of these have different levels of sacrifice that you’ll need to make to achieve them.
The lesson: Understand what your goal is, and appreciate that to achieve anything worth having, there will be some sacrifice. Work out whether you are willing to make that sacrifice, and if you aren’t, maybe you should adjust your goal.
There are some of my thoughts on how to be a better miniature painter without ever really talking about miniature painting. This is why my default response is: you need practice. Because it’s hard to distill all of my above thoughts and learnings into anything other than that. I’ll leave you with what I consider my mantra in both painting, and life:
You can achieve anything you set your mind to with the Three Ps: Passion, Perseverance, and Practice, Practice, Practice.
BIG DENO OUT