Thursday, 28 May 2015

Painting Psychology - The reward process in painting

Detailed whites on the Colonel of the 24e Ligne
I, probably like most wargamers, have a painting routine and technique that has become habitual. I may try out an occasional new colour combination or multiple shading every now and then, but like most humans, I fit the stereotype of doing what feels comfortable, again and again.

However I do credit myself with thinking about why I am doing things the way I am doing it as I am in the zone as they say, and a thought came into my mind about what I was doing with my current project, the 24e Ligne.

The first seven figures on the left show what I was doing before changing the process at figure eight with grey straps and lapels ready for the next session.

The pictures, I quickly grabbed at the end of a session show progress on the first battalion. I should say that I haven't painted French line infantry for years now, and as with all new subjects it takes me time to work my way around a figure working out what needs highlighting and what colours to use. When it's new, I am constantly stopping to refer to picture references, that I don't do quite so often as the subject becomes more familiar. I think I can now paint British infantry in my sleep!

I use a three colour system that starts with a basic process of applying the base shades in a block painting process, and I always start with the flesh areas, the coat colour, then other major colour groups, muskets, back packs, greatcoats, trousers, water bottles/canteens. The final block shade is usually black, where I get to tidy up the figure and lay a base for the metal parts that usually sit on another colour.

What follows then is a highlighting process with two increasingly lighter shades. I would usually break this process up into sessions of one to two hours depending on what else had to be done and how good my pod-cast list was.

I happened to be in the second session of these chaps, which had all the principle block colours done, the black, the first highlights except the white bits. I then started on the Colonel pictured above, shading over the grey and buff areas with off white, and then moving on to the other command figures and the first fusiliers. Working the white, as I call it, can be very intense as the small detail of straps and waistcoat areas is quite precise and my progress slowed dramatically.

I then thought, hang on, when I finish this session, I want to come back to a completed section, and I was not going to be able to do that at this pace. So I decided to just focus on the large areas of white that were relatively easy to get done, namely the trousers and shako covers, and leave the lapels, straps and turn-backs to the next session, after all I would be doing white lacing last and that is even more intense.

When I finished the last shako cover and put the work down I had an immediate feeling of success and completion, looking forward to coming back with just the detail work to do, which I know will "break the back" of the project.

Now I am relaxing and thinking about the process, I realise that is what I would normally do with other figures I have painted but I guess the novelty of the subject matter threw me off my SOP (standard operating procedure), but it has made me realise why I do things in a certain way to get that feeling of achievement by finishing a section of painting and if you find this useful it might help you.

So on with the 24e and I hope to get these chaps done in the next couple of days.


  1. I'm with you - there has to be a specific method behind ones approach to painting.
    Back in the day I would paint for hours without a break - then my back happened....
    Now I paint for an hour and stop for 30 to 45 minutes. Then refreshed I return to my painting table. On a week night I like to paint for an hour before I go to bed - I find that it actually relaxes me.
    There is a tremendous sense of achievement, I find, as you clean your brush for the last time upon completion of a unit.

    1. Hi Nigel,
      I was sure when I wrote this piece that regular painters would have similar mental strategies that, to be honest, we take for granted and don't pay much attention to. I just find it fascinating that a significant group of wargamers find this aspect of the hobby the most difficult.

      I can see that some people don't like painting for various reasons and will get their figures painted or even pre-painted, but there are a lot who work away at getting better and painting more regularly that, I think, end up defeating their own efforts by not developing a "feel good" approach and quickly getting fed up and into not liking painting.

      The good news is, as you point out, that when you get into this aspect of the hobby, it is a great stress buster and very relaxing, and totally rewarding as I think any artistic endeavour is.

  2. If there is an Ashes test on I find I can go up to four hours in a single session, with breaks no longer than five minutes or so, otherwise around two hours and then a 30-minute break is my current limit.

    The thing I have always struggled with is the temptation of trying to do too many in a single batch, when the monotony of painting a single colour for too long invariably has a negative effect and I have to walk away as I become slightly disillusioned at the apparent lack of progress. I find that smaller batch sizes of around twenty or so 28mm figures is a good size for me, so I can get a few colours down in a session and keep myself motivated.

    1. Hi Lawrence,
      Spot on, nothing like painting and listening to the cricket. That is just Jam and Clotted Cream or a match made in heaven (don't forget to put the cream on the scone first as in the Devon way).

      You make a very important point about batch painting, and I have found, especially when helping my lads get into painting, that small is good, ie regular breaks and work small batches. Little boys have very short attention spans, which get slightly larger as they grow up. Tom, now in his twenties, is very able at working this strategy and has found painting a great relaxation in between studying.

    2. Please don't get me started on Devonshire teas, Jonathon. One of the most delightful experiences of my life (at least while we were eating it).

      I remember leaving the café where it was served, and wondering whether I would have an heart attack on the drive back to London. Superb.

  3. Exactly the same process I use JJ.

    Many years ago I remember being told by an old wargamer to "always start with the face". After all this time I can say I think he was right.


    1. Now there is another habit that is worthy of a bit of analysis.

      For me I think it is about marking out the lines on a figure so at a glance I can immediately see where the colour of the garments will start and begin to visualise the overall look; and it is another one of those simple stages, that if I do nothing else to twenty four figures I can walk away thinking, "that's one stage complete - good job"

  4. I used your tutorials as I really turned a corner as a painter and learner how to paint. It is my SOP. With my little kids I find less time to paint, but when I do I always like being able to complete a phase as you described above and have that sense of accomplishment. It always brings me joy to watch my figures materialize from a dark mass into something cool.

    1. Hi Adam,
      That's brilliant to hear.

      I had the baton passed to me years ago when I met Peter Gilder, who gave a painting demonstration, which together with playing with his magnificent collection of figures, just left me inspired and wanting to try and emulate the process.

      Like anything new it took time time to perfect a process of my own, adding on techniques I picked up from other people but all I can say is that painting is as an important aspect of the hobby to me as is the reading, writing, battlefield walking and game playing, not to mention spending time with others who get passionate about the same kind of stuff.

  5. Interesting point. I find myself getting bogged down in batch painting and have many, many blocked in figures that I just gave up on. Finishing figures has proved a very big boost to my current painting efforts, so I try to fully finish 2 - 5 at a time.

    1. Hi Sean. Yes the key thing, I think with batch painting and working sessions, is making sure you can walk away from the project with that warm feeling that says you have made progress and a significant part has been finished. The personal morale takes a huge boost and leaves you looking forward to coming back to it, and I have experienced a high restarting a project the next day and remembering that I only have these few sections left to do.