Monday, 26 September 2011

If a picture paints a thousand words

What's your hobby?

As someone reading a wargaming blog, you might be tempted to reply "well wargaming, durrr" but things aren't necessarily so clear cut.

I was pondering this in response to the return to the blogosphere of Solo Wargaming in the UK. Carl, who I'd like to think of as a friend although we've never met or even corresponded, has been going through some tough times in recent months that we won't dwell on here, and in response took a step back from blogging and gaming while real-world issues played themselves out.

Now personally, based on my own experience, I believe that to be a mistake. It's exactly those times that put us under the most pressure, when it's most helpful to have a hobby to fall back on and help us unwind. My time blogging here has roughly coincided with a significant decline in my father's health to the point where we are now considering the worst. I've found picking up the wargaming hobby again to be a great therapy and playing around with toy soldiers a great way to decompress.

I'm pleased to say Carl has also come around to enjoy some "gaming therapy" but his postings along those lines were all about painting miniatures. Which got me pondering - I think pretty much all of the posts at Solo Wargaming In The UK have been about painting or terrain building or some other form of gaming prep, rather than any actual gaming reports. And there's nothing really wrong with that.. our hobby is so all-engrossing that one could keep oneself entertained for years without ever actually playing a wargame. There's research, which can not just include proper academic research but also reading appropriate fiction and watching TV and Films to help get into the mood. There's figure painting, terrain building, rules writing. And then of course there's blogging about the hobby, taking part in online discussion forums or even writing for one of the remaining wargaming print periodicals. And... dare I say it... Hats?!!

Now I'm a great advocate of the "Go Play!" fad that swept the RPG community online a few years back but sadly seems to have died out. You may still see forum avatars with small green "play button" symbols in them, like mine on this blog. The idea behind "Go Play!" is that gamers have a tendency to spend too much time discussing games, buying games, reading games, re-writing games... effectively doing all of the peripherary aspects of the hobby except the core crux of the hobby - actually playing and enjoying the games themselves. I think the same thinking can be applied to the wargaming hobby as well.

So while I may enjoy many of the other aspects of the hobby, at the end of the day they're really all just a stepping stone towards the real reward, which is putting figures and terrain on a table and having a jolly fun game of toy soldiers.

So the new regime of "Family Duty" has me retasked as a full-time carer for my parents. Fortunately that's not quite as onerous as it may sound, since in between preparing meals and medication and doing general chores, there's an awful lot of sitting around waiting, time which I've been able to turn towards the other aspects of the wargaming hobby. Here are the next tranche of steamtanks, assembled and awaiting primer. The front three are the Scotia Grendel dwarven steam tanks from the Leviathan fantasy range, the same as the "Thunder Hammer" mentioned previously. On the left is the heavily converted "Iron Drake" which used to have an exposed dwarven driver figure. I've removed that, filled the top surface with Milliput and added a turret from Ramshackle Games "Tridlins" catalogue. Removing the original driver and weapon proved quite an irritating challenge, so I'm electing to leave the original driver and weapon intact for the Rapier (right) which seems to be armed with some sort of harpoon launcher. Front and centre is the Ironclad, whose multiple rocket launcher is just crying out for some sort of custom rule in GASLIGHT to make it suitably random and chaotic.

At the back, and shown in greater detail here is the customised "Brass Coffin" from Ramshackle Games. An extra set of large wheels, the smokestack from the Huntsman Spider Tank and a turret (I think from the Liger) go together in such a natural way, I'm surprised Ramshackle haven't released this as an "official" variant model. I'd love to take credit for this design, but all plaudits have to go to Papa Midnight over at the Lead Adventure Forums, who did this first and, it has to be said, a lot better than I've done it.

So painting. I've developed a weird relationship with figure painting recently. Bottom line is that I'm no good at it. I'm colour blind (and yes, there may be one or two greenish horses in my collection), have shaky hands and in the last year have found that I'm totally incapable of actually focusing my eyes on paintbrush and figure close enough to apply any sort of controlled detail. In 25 years of gaming I've tried all the "how to paint figures" tutorials - used various techniques - black undercoat, white undercoat, grey undercoat, outline and fill, drybrushing, washes, shadow, colour and highlight..... really all of them. And I've practiced and practiced and practiced.... and I still suck ass.

So nowadays I've given it all up and settled on the "technique" that gives me the best results.... dipping.

I first read of the "magic dip" technique back at the turn of the millennium, where US gamers were generally using Minwax Polyshades
floor stain & varnish. I tried it with the nearest UK alternative I could find - the black "Tudor" stain didn't seem to be available so I went with the darkest brown I could. The result gave a better overall effect than I could ever hope to achieve with other techniques, and I could quite happily live with the high-gloss finish especially since it seemed to be well-nigh bulletproof.

Pause for eight years.

Army Painter came along and brought out their "Quickshade" range of varnish/stains aimed specifically at the wargamer. Now these are significantly more expensive than the floor products in the DIY stores, but you have to take Army Painter's word that these products are new formulations that are optimised for figure painting and not just the floor finish poured into new cans. Besides, used carefully a single tin can last a while (I've done all my GASLIGHT figures and Jonesy's Force On Force figures and are still less than halfway through my first can).

So these are the figures I've been painting during odd moments over the last week or so. I'm not quite sure why I started collecting unarmed Victorian Civilian figures - in fact I started before I ever had any thought of switching from 15mm to 28mm. A few scattered around a battlefield might add a bit of colour to proceedings. They are a mix of manufacturers (Foundry, Westwind, Eureka, Blue Moon, Parroom Station). In keeping with my own personal vision of the 19th century, I've gone for a slightly brighter palette than you normally see for Victoriana miniatures, but this matches the "toy soldier" look I use for the troops. The two sets of photos show the "before" with just the base colour coats and "after" immediately after applying the Quickshade. Personally I don't physically dip my minis, as the approved Army Painter technique of "shaking off the excess" seems to just be a recipe for wastage. Instead I take a size 8 brush and dip it about 5mm into the Quickshade, and apply that brushload to the front of the figure, then pick up a similar brushload and apply it to the back. I then spend 5 mins spreading the varnish and stain around, mopping up any excessive sized pools and generally neatening up the results.

The results? You often hear naysayers claim they could easily get the same results and better using ink washes and conventional techniques, so what's special about this "magic dip"? But they miss the point... I cannot get figures looking as good as this using those other techniques. And I certainly couldn't paint any significant numbers in a reasonable length of time. If you can, then bully for you, but if I want to get the painted white metal onto the gaming table, then this is the method that works best for me.

So there I am, wincing as I strain my eyes to focus on the figure, jerkily waving the brush in what I hope is roughly the right area for the part I'm trying to paint and hoping I'll be able to tidy it up later. I'm doing what most other figure painters would consider only a quarter of the job, and falling back on a speedpainting "cheat" that gives passable wargames-quality results. At no part in the process do I feel like I'm having "fun", and yet, overall, I'm finding it strangely enjoyable and relaxing.


  1. Yes our hobby is multifacetted - painting, modelling and playing with the figs, and many of us focus more on one area than others - I know folks who are more than happy to paint away and assemble armies almost for the sake of it, and just get the odd game now and then, and then theres those at the other end that want to play the game, cant paint, or cant be bothered to paint, and just put unpainted figs on the table... which makes me cringe a bit.
    So if you are getting painted figs on the table, then good for you. If army painter works for you great. I have considered it but am as yet unconcinvinced, some negative comments out there on the web.
    I have found a block paint as you do, then a wash with Vallejo Brown wash, gives a similar result without the gloss sheen, which I am not a fan of, but if you like the 'toy soldier' look, then it obviously suits you down to a tee. :-)
    Keep up the good work.
    Nice tanks too :-)

  2. I like the various facets of the hobby and often switch around, spending more time on painting when I'm in the mood or more time on gaming when I feel like it. As to painting, I do enjoy it, but I'm not fast. Whatever works for you is what counts. If you are having fun what else really matters?
    I think you figures look fine for tabletop games. My own will never win any painting competitions, but I'm not trying to. I'm just painting to the level I enjoy.

  3. Dr Vesuvious,

    I absolutely agree with you about how wargaming can be a means of acheiving some form of relief when everything else in the world seems to be conspiring to make your life difficult ... if not impossible.

    I also agree that the best painting technique is the one that suits you best. I wonder at the fantastic paint jobs that some people manage to achieve ... but despite trying the only way I can get near to their standard would mean I never ever painted enough figures to fight a battle! I use a slightly different method to you that involves dry brushing, gloss varnish, and India ink ... but the results are not that different and I like the end result.

    Good luck to you.

    All the best,


  4. I think you get attracted to a hobby with the promise of 'Just Doing It'. But as you mature and get into it you start to explore the other aspects which fullfil the desire to continue as a solo activity. Let's face it, getting together to game isn't so convenient!

    I've seen some of your past work Chris (when you lived in our village) and I can concur that it was a tad rough around the edges, but I knew I probably wouldn't be able to do much better and they served a purpose well enough. These photo's prove you've found your method.

    You know I've found similar problems seeing small objects these days, I often get the tricky sewing repair jobs that Mrs R1ck refuses to tackle and if the light aint bright enough (and artificial won't do it) then getting that yarn through the eye is a real task. I can't begin to think what trouble it can be to paint detail on some of those tiny figures,.. and then do it exactly the same on the other 40.

    Similarly with the tank models, slapping a bit of paint on is one thing, but applying the weathering and dirt is where the skill is. And I've seen the array of paint products from the likes of tamiya that you feel compelled to buy should you descend down this slippery path.

    Personally I settle for good enough,.. they're functional models not show pieces. So keep up the good work, hold onto your sanity and as ever I look forward to your next post.

  5. @Scott

    Looking at your recent Motley Crew post, you've already got a great painting style, the only thing you might get from trying Army Painter is speed.

    Back in my younger days I didn't think using unpainted figures was too bad, but after being inspired by the Major General's site back around 2000 I swore I'd never put unpainted metal on the table again.

    Regarding the gloss finish from the AP Quickshade, it's easy to get rid of with a quick blast of matt varnish (or "anti-shine" as AP call it) but as you say, I'm deliberately going for a "toy soldier" look, for which the gloss is entirely appropriate.

  6. @Fitz-Badger

    Thank-you. Your figures look mighty fine and with far more detailing than I can manage. That's the downside with the tricorne-hat era I suppose - lots of lace and braid fiddly bits.

  7. @Bob

    One thing I haven't tried yet is using Quickshade on 15mm figures in any numbers, though it did work fine on the 1/72nd plastics.

    If your current style isn't too dissimilar to the Quickshade results, it might be worth you giving it a try sometime. After all it's a handy tool to have in your back pocket for when you really need to get figures painted fast.

  8. @R1ck

    There you have it folks, confirmation that I've been consistently sucking since the mid nineties, although I consider "a tad rough around the edges" to be an uncommonly generous critique.

    One advantage with gaming in the pseudo-Victorian era... no self respecting engineer is going to allow his prize contraption to become grubby or "weathered" so I'm able to extend the "toy soldier" style to the steamtanks and paint them in pristine showroom condition.

  9. "uncommonly generous critique"..
    Laffs, are you fishing for more compliments?

    I do agree with you about the pristine condition of your tanks (and figures for that matter). You put a lot of time and effort into making them look good, so why spoil that by applying an "approximation to realism".