The Skill Wall and Display vs. Army Painting

When I started painting miniatures and figures, it was for gaming. I had a bit of a false start with Reaper’s first Bones kickstarter, but eventually I got hooked by way of a Warmachine starter set I got for Christmas one year. However, as I’ve moved more and more into display painting and away from just painting for games, I’ve started to notice some differences between army painting and display painting.

The skill wall

One of the concepts I have been thinking about in my display painting has been a “skill wall.” This is a point where you look at a model and, even if it isn’t perfect, you don’t have the skills to really do anything to it which will actually improve the model. At that point, you are best to call it done because any further work is just futzing around with it for little to no actual improvement.

To use an analogy, think of the skill wall as a physical barrier that you are trying to run towards. As you get better at running, you learn to run both faster (representing how fast you can put paint on a model) and farther (representing how good the final product looks). A painting competition is measuring the distance you go, and it is up to you to take it all the way as far as you can. We all eventually hit that wall, but if you want to win, you need to drag yourself to the outer edge of your skill and not just say “meh, good enough.”

When you are just starting out, I would argue that you should push yourself to the max with every model. Let’s face it, all of us when we started barely knew how to get the paint onto the model. In the previous analogy, we were the equivalent of a 500 pound man huffing and wheezing as we struggled to waddle the 100 metre dash. At that point, you need all the exercise you can get. But as we practice and get in shape, we can go both farther and faster. Maybe after a month of training, our skill wall is 200 metres from the start line, but we can now jog 200 metres in half the time it previously took us to waddle 100 metres.

Ideally, as people who paint armies and hordes for games, as we paint more and more, we are both getting better at painting and getting faster as we learn the basics of brush control and all sorts of little tips, tricks and techniques to speed our work. We start producing better work, but it doesn’t take that much longer (and may even take less time) because we now paint faster as well. We might even find some shortcuts like using airbrushes, sketch style or contrast paints to take a different route which gets us better results faster.

However, once you start doing some serious display painting, things start to change. Eventually, you end up in a situation where, even though you have the brush control techniques to paint relatively quickly, your capabilities are so advanced that you could spend dozens of hours on a single model and not even hit your skill wall yet. But since dozens of hours per model times dozens of models in your army equals an unrealistic amount of time, the approach of always pushing yourself to the max on every single model may start to get problematic at some point.

Basically, at some point, no matter how good of a runner you are, it will still take a while to do a marathon.

From a practical perspective, since there are only so many hours in the day, you end up having to do one of two things when you are army painting. First, you start looking for techniques that save time rather than improve quality. You might do some sketch style or try out new airbrush techniques instead of slowly and carefully layering highlights. Second, you have to start saying “good enough” at some point, and this is where the whole concept of “tabletop quality” starts to come in (even though “tabletop standard” is kind of a confusing concept).

That sounds bad, but in the context of painting an entire army, it really isn’t. Yes, no individual model from your army will win a best single model painting competition (except maybe a centerpiece model you have kicked up to a higher standard), however that isn’t the point of army painting. To paraphrase Stalin, quantity has a quality of its own. A large decently-painted army with some uniformity in sculpts, colours and basing schemes, some nice pop on the highlights, and maybe a couple really nice centerpiece models looks rad as hell, even if random dude with spear number 37 isn’t the most impressive model.

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Pictured: Two small, rad-as-hell looking armies

All about the base

One other big difference between painting for a game and painting for display is the question of bases. In many wargames, base size serves an important gameplay purposes and measurements are made from the base. In Warmachine, this is a particular issue because tournament play requires round-lipped bases, which I am not really a fan of because the lip seems to take up a large portion of the area available for basing, and there are fewer third party scenic bases available than there are for the traditional GW style angle-lipped bases.

Gaming bases are generally pretty simple and utilitarian, often consisting of a flat plastic base with maybe a touch of simple texture or other scenic elements on top. There is an incentive not to build up too much height on their bases because taller models means they take up more room in your army transport bag, and it can get difficult at times to lug armies around to games.

Display painters often like to put their models on fancy plinths, which both looks nice and serves a practical purpose – where wargamers tend to handle their models by the model itself, display painters often don’t varnish their pieces and don’t want to touch them, so a nice plinth can serve as a convenient handle for when you do need to put them on the contest table.

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An early attempt at an almost-display level model that I could game with, before I started doing real display models. Note how the arc markings on the base are distracting from the model. This was basically my skill wall at the time.

In games such as Warmachine, there is also an issue with facing and arc marking. Since you are strongly encouraged to mark facings on your bases, this can become an issue because these markings can draw attention away from the model and towards the usually high contrast markings on the rim of the base. A plain black rim just looks better as it doesn’t draw attention away from the model and gives some nice separation between the table and the scenery on the base. This is why, in spite of encouraging players to paint arc markings on their bases, Privateer Press has plain black rims in all of their box art.

Finally, there can be practical issues with overly scenic bases. Games featuring true line of sight, where line of sight is measured to the model itself, can cause issues. It can be hard for your awesome character model to take cover behind a wall if he is permanently standing on top of a pile of the corpses of his vanquished enemies. In other games such as Warmachine, players tend to place an extremely high value on precision movement, so things like overhang and fancy, elevated basing can cause frustration. If you are trying to do something display-like that you still want to game with, the demands of the game can compromise your artistic vision.

Simply put, a gaming base looks underwhelming in a painting contest, and a nice plinth wouldn’t work on the gaming table. While you can sometimes get away with using the same bases, you eventually get to a point where you need to decide if you are going to use a piece for gaming or as a display piece and go one way or the other.

Varnish and protecting your paint

Finally, we get into one of the biggest differences between painting for a game and painting for display. Game models are meant to be touched and handled, display models generally aren’t.

This means a few things. First, display models can sometimes incorporate small, fiddly details that would be unsuitable for the sort of rough handling that a gaming model goes through, between transport and gaming. As one example, I saw a model of a tank for one of the WW2 combat games that came with two main guns – one to the proper scale, and a thicker one for gamers because the proper scale gun is too fragile for tabletop gaming.

And, we have to get into varnish. Since gamers tend to handle their minis a lot, they tend to appreciate thick coats of varnish. While I’m not sure to what extent the varnish actually protects the miniature (I would think primer adhesion would be a bigger culprit for chipping),

Unfortunately, when you are painting for display, a varnish can change the finish in ways that you don’t intend. Obviously, a matte varnish will destroy the shine of your metallics (do I really need to explain this one?). You can rescue it somewhat with a gloss varnish overtop, but it still won’t quite be the same as if you left your metallics in their natural state.

However, even with regular, non-metallic paints, a varnish can slightly change the finish of the paint in ways that you don’t expect. As a result, it is common for display painters to address this problem by leaving their models unvarnished, and simply not touch them, as they are not willing to risk sacrificing their hard work on getting the blends perfect only to have it be messed with by a varnish.

What does this all mean?

While they are very similar skills and incorporate similar techniques, I believe that army painting and display painting are different enough that we should recognize and celebrate both. There are people who aren’t going to win a painting competition because their skill wall isn’t far enough out yet. These people either don’t want to make the jump into display-only painting (especially when they are staring down a bunch of space marines they need painted for the next tournament) or they simply aren’t skilled enough yet to seriously compete. However, they can field very nice armies thanks to patience, practice and perseverance.

When it comes to wargaming, I’m a big advocate of rewarding and incentivising all aspects of the hobby. There is an attitude in some circles that tournaments are about game mastery and painting competitions are about display painting and never the twain shall meet in order to protect the sanctity of both. However, I feel this attitude is wrong-headed because it leaves out the army painters – the sort of people who may not have the skills to be competitive at something like Crystal Brush, but who have the perseverance to play it painted and to produce nice looking armies.

On the tournament side, this can be done in a variety of ways; some combination of best painted army awards, paint scores, or bonuses or raffles for fielding a fully painted army could work. On the display side, I think events like GW’s Armies on Parade are a neat way to allow army painters to showcase their work, compete, and get some recognition for a job well done. Space permitting, things like this could be incorporated into painting competitions, which would give army painters an opportunity to mingle with display painters and pick up some skills.

Final thoughts

While display and army painting involve a lot of similar skills, there are a number of significant differences that make them not always the same. However, that is not to devalue or diminish army painting; the patience and perseverance involved in painting an army is not unlike that of bringing a single model up to a very high display standard. And both should be rewarded and celebrated.

 

Bonus content: French Cruiser De Grasse

One of the raffle prizes I snagged at TorCan was a Heller 1:1400 scale kit of the French cruiser De Grasse. Construction started on this ship before World War II, and in the chaos of the war and the Fall of France, plans for the hull changed a number of times before it was finally finished as an anti-aircraft cruiser in 1956.

The kit itself was not very big and was showing its age. Instructions came on a single sheet of yellowed paper, and no decals were supplied. I ended up struggling to get the two halves of the hull and the deck in place properly, which caused a number of issues with seam lines. Most of the painting was relatively simple, with the exception of the helicopter landing pad at the rear which I painted onto the deck by hand. I used brass rod to fashion a pair of flagpoles at the front and back, each flying tiny French flags made of little squares of aluminum foil, and since I couldn’t find my ez-line, used one of my own hairs for the rigging.

Also, even though it makes no sense, I painted the plaque on the front using TMM shading because… reasons?

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