Sometimes art happens

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I like to treat painting miniatures as a craft project, not as an artistic one. Thinking about my process of painting in an objective and purely functional activity makes me less precious about it. I don't feel the weight of my own expectation. I don't sit staring at the unprimed miniature in dread, for fear that my first brush stroke will ruin the beauty and purity of the object. So I don't think about what I'm doing as "art", and I think of myself as a guy who needs to paint a toy soldier so I can add it to my game board and play. That's not a stretch, because that's literally all that's going on at my hobby table.

However, I have seen a lot of really expertly painted miniatures at the Warhammer store, and at my local game store, and online. I recently learned, in fact, that the Wizkids miniature company hand paints their pre-painted miniature line, which I've bought before. I don't know how I thought they got painted, but I never imagine it was an actual human being. It's almost humbling to see such precision work, and certainly by comparison it does tempt me to think of my work as just functional painting and the work of professionals as "art".

But that's one of the worst uses of the word "art", the one that's actually a euphemism for "better than what I did". I have a feeling that none of the artists, or at least any of the ones I'd care about, would themselves say that their work is inherently more valuable than my work. "Art" isn't usually intended as a value judgement, even though we sometimes use it that way in conversation.

Art and lies

Sometimes, when you paint a miniature because you need it to be Macragge Blue instead of grey, you also decide that it might be fun for there to be some blood splattered across the model's arm. Or while you're painting a dreadnaught or mech, you decide it could be interesting for some of the "paint" to have scratched off, revealing the cold metal underneath. Or you decide a battle-worn tank or a chopper could have a little rust gathering around its seams.

Those kinds of details are "lies". There's not really blood or mud or rust or wear on the miniature. The "paint" on the mech hasn't really chipped away to expose metal underneath it, the metal is actual paint. For me, that's where the art of the project starts. Art is the stuff on a miniature that goes beyond fulfilling the job of hiding the grey. Some paint justifies the model, but the paint that's art is the paint that tells the story of the character the model represents, and that character's history.

The cool thing about these artistic flourishes is that they start a lot earlier than you might expect. It starts out pretty rudimentary. You sit down to paint, with your one miniature and dozen paint pot starter kit, and you make a decision about what colour the model's hat is going to be. You only have 8 things to choose from, discounting the metalics and washes. Eventually, you pick a colour, and while you paint your mind wanders, and you find yourself inventing a story about why this character's hat is bright yellow, of all things.

As you paint more, your technique develops, and you start telling the same kinds of little stories with detail work. A model's wearing two different colour socks, or a neck tie that doesn't quite match the outfit, or he carries a gleaming gold sword or a gleaming silver ink pen in the right pocket.

Every choice you make has the opportunity to become part of that model's backstory. It'll probably never come up in a game. You might even forget about the detail until somebody points it out and asks about it. But it's there, and it's only there because you put it there. It's as small and insignificant as a choice a set decorator on a movie set makes when the cinematographer asks for the frame to be filled out a little. Nobody notices it because it's part of the in-world story. But really everybody notices it, most of them subconsciously, and those are the details that tell the bulk of the story.

T'au soldiers photo by Seth Kenlon. Creative Commons cc0.

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