Wednesday 6 March 2013

Photography & Wargaming

A couple of days ago my copy of Wargames Soldiers and Strategy arrived in the post and as usual I set aside some quality time to read it undisturbed (a rare commodity in my house). There's a great article this month by the Blogosphere's very own BigRedBat that is definitely worth checking out. There are many things about this magazine that I love but one of the highlights are the regular columns by the likes of Richard ClarkeSteven MacLauchlan and of course the great Rick Priestly. This months "This Gaming Life" by Rick got me thinking (as it always does) about miniatures painting and how it has changed since I got started in the hobby nearly 30 years ago. 

Ricks article highlighted one simple and universal truth about wargaming that we are all aware of even if we haven't dwelt upon; namely the standard of painted miniatures and terrain has improved relentlessly over the years. Within our hobby we are bombarded on a daily basis by photographs of painted mini's that are so good it makes you cry with frustration because for the majority of us mere mortals such perfection is just a distant dream. But is this a good or a bad thing, and has Photography changed our hobby for better or worse? 
"Some people have the gift of painting to an excellent standard. For them, playing with excellently painted miniatures is a simple matter. The rest of us can only dream of playing with such gorgeous miniatures, after we've cried ourselves to sleep at night, that is...."   (Rick Priestly, WSS 65)
Grainy pictures like this still have the power to inspire.
The advent of full colour wargaming magazines and the growth of the World Wide Web (and of course Blogs) made the photography of our miniatures in increasing detail inevitable. Thirty years ago I would have been lucky to see a grainy black and white photo of a wargames table in a magazine. The quality of the painted miniatures contained therein was less important than the overall impression of the game table and the ranks of troops featured. Most of the photographs I came across back then generally gave what we would probably now call an arms length or 'tabletop' view of miniatures. For me that didn't matter because a large part of my enjoyment of wargaming has always been the grand spectacle of a game and less about the quality or even the accuracy of the individually painted figures.

Now I know I have just committed and act of heresy saying that accuracy isn't important and I guess I need to clarify that statement. Broadly accuracy is important, its the link between our 'toys' and the real history we are trying to represent on the table. So painting British redcoats in blue is just not on, but is it really that important to get the collar cuff the right colour? In the grand scheme of things, and looking at that arms length tabletop view, of course it isn't. But as I recently observed this is the sort of hobby that attracts the OCD type (me included) and even if we can't see the colour of the cuffs from four feet away on a 15mm mini we can while we are painting the damn thing from six inches away, and that counts! 

It looks like an Impressionist painting, but its still impressive.
And this brings me back to photography, because when we look at all those gorgeous pictures in our magazines or on manufacturers websites what we are really looking at is the painters eye view of the miniature, not the wargamers eye view. As a Painter I aspire to the same level of skill and artistry, but as a wargamer I know I'll never achieve it... and frankly I stop caring when I see my whole army lined up on the games table.

Ricks article seemed to suggest that for some gamers having the best examples of their work described as reaching a "good wargaming standard" could be taken as an insult. Me, I recognise the split personality in all of us gamers, but especially myself. I'm an aspiring but ultimately mediocre painter and I'm a wargamer that enjoys the spectacle and grandeur of an army on the table. These two aspects of my gaming character are not mutually exclusive and I'm fortunate that I'm a big chap and there's plenty of room inside for two personalities.

My 15mm WWII US Paratroopers
So, back to my original question. Has high definition, digital photography changed our hobby for better or worse? Personally I think it is definitely a good thing. Rick made the point that wargaming magazines filled with colour pictures meant that miniatures were suddenly focused on in greater detail than ever before and were usually photographed unvarnished to reduce shine. This in turn contributed to the changing demands within our hobby for larger colour palettes, new techniques and products and,  significantly, flat varnish. There are now a vast array of specialist products available that have enhanced and advanced painting and improved the quality of painted miniatures across the board regardless of the painters 'skill level'.

Gone are the days of enamel paints, block painting and gloss varnish and consequently today's "wargaming standard" is light years ahead of where it was just a few decades ago. I may never field an army painted to the same incredible standard seen in my magazines, but the fact that I am inspired by their work has improved the quality of my own figures and maybe narrowed the gap... a little. 


  1. To be fair, it is the fantasy gamers that have upped the standard, both of models and painting. I do think photo models have become an art in themselves and have no connetion with wargaming.

    1. I have never seen one of these expertly painted armies on the games table, only in print. And like most wargamers I doubt if I could ever achieve the same standard or find the time to paint and field one, but that doesn't matter. I'm still inspired by the pictures to up my standards and still enjoy wargaming regardless of the models I use (I draw the line at unpainted figures though!).

    2. I have. But then, I game regularly against Andy Hawes :D

  2. Hi Lee, thanks- fame at last! ;-)

    Funnily enough I was just wondering how OCD I am, this morning, there is definitely something going on, here... When my wife read my piece on storage she was reduced to tears of laughter, but it wasn't intentionally humorous... :o)

    1. Fame indeed, it was a good article an got me thinking about my own chronic lack of space. Mind you on the plus side it has forced me to be selective in what I keep... many a wargaming friend has benefited from my cast-off's as a result!

  3. Some very interesting thoughts here. I want to answer straight away as I find the topics engaging. However I feel I need to mull over my feelings and instincts before committing anything to writing.

  4. I too make a distinction between different types of painting, and for me it depends largely on what the model is, and how its intended to be viewed.

    for instance, i make a distinction between painting a single miniature on a display base, and a single miniature to be played with. possibly quite obviously, but i also now, once a color scheme is fixed paint models as they are intended to be viewed..

    for instance if i have before me a hero figure, or a general say, and a unit. i will paint them as such. i wil paint the unit in a batch, all together.. and the single hero figure, on his own. that ensures the level of attention the model gets is commensurate with the level of scrutiny i expect it to be subjected to.

    I will agree that the photography in particular is a cause of some consternation o me. i can paint a figure and be very happy with it, but then photograph it for my blog, and see if 30x its size blown up on my pc screen and be quite disheartened.

    I consider myself a "good" wargame painter, and an aspiring display painter. and i have in my mind to make that distinction too. I have a space wolves army i'm trying to paint to almost a display standard, but that's time consuming in the extreme, i have a guard army painted to my tabletop standards, - i'll admit, its won the odd "best painted" but i used a lot f camo, so often it will be beaten by more stand-out but less technically difficult armies.

    and that's my last point. what quantifies "good" painting, as often it's not technical painting that's judged but an armies impact, and that often comes down to design more than execution.

    ultimately the trick is not to paint for other people, but to paint for yourself, and not to measure or judge your work against others, but against yourself, is this figure better than your last? did it teach you anything? are you improving towards your goal.

    i'm okay with where i'm at. i'd like to be better, and i work to improve, but am i ever going to be as good as kong and rafa? probably not, i cant imagine 60 hours on a single model.

    1. Thanks for your input, and I agree that you have to paint for yourself not for others. But the very fact that you and I have Blog's and showcase pictures of our models on them suggests we are both actually seeking the approbation of our peers. That's not a bad thing mind you, it means we strive to improve our painting from one project to the next and like you said, we learn and improve where possible.

  5. Over the last few years I guess I've had to paint for my Blog, which requires a higher standard for individual fgures than I'd probably bother with if it was just for the table. On the plus side, the minis look great, on the downside there are somewhat fewer of them, finished.

  6. Very interesting Lee. I think I suffer from painting all models to the same standard. What I mean by this is that I spend too much time on rank and file, not enough time on leaders/ heroes. Since investing in a new camera I also have become a little discouraged. Now I can really see all the flash, mold lines and spots I missed with paint.

  7. 'Gone are the days of enamel paints.... and gloss varnish'
    Nay lad!
    (As my lasagne said to me the other day)

  8. Last year at Broadside when I was chatting to Henry Hyde, I described it as "the tyranny of the blogosphere". By that I mean that we know we will be taking pics that may show the figures at 2-3 (or more) times their actual size and so we tend to paint them so that they look good there, eg painting a 15mm figure to the standard of a 28mm or maybe even a 54mm figure. At least as far as the visible details are concerned. Fortunately we have been able to pick up a number of "cheats" from the modelling/diorama crowd that can make basic block painting look like we have done 2-3 shading steps for each colour.

    I probably (OK, definitely) paint to a much higher standard than I need to for gaming, but that is down to me wanting my armies to look great both at gaming distance and up-close/on my blog. Yes, it takes me longer to finish painting an army (even when you ignore my habit of deciding to add more units all the time!).

    There is another bonus from painting my armies to that standard though - it makes it much easier to achieve great looking individual figures or good-enough units when I do switch up scales.

  9. We live in a society where conspicuous display is important and our hobby is little different. Some people want more 'bling' than others. If you had sent your figures off to someone else to paint 30 years ago, you would have been lower than the guy who kept turning up with unpainted or undercoated figures and mocked accordingly.

    Some people painted their stuff better than others and were accorded demi-god status, sure... alongside the guy who never seemed to lose his games. It's now more about the figures though... a bit like Top Gear for anoraks...

    Which is pretty much what wargame magazines are - Miniature Wargames didn't flag in sales because of its content, it was because it insisted on showing 'real' wargaming figures, unlike its opposition.

    Why would anyone game a 20th Century conflict in 28mm for example? Or even 20mm? It certainly isn't about 'simulating war' as close engagements typically take place at around 300 yards, translating to about 16' on the table at 28mm, or 12' in 20mm. Even extreme useful pistol range comes out at 1-2' at these scales!

    In other periods too it's the same... 20 or so Napoleonic figures representing a formation of 1,000 men? Using small wooden blocks would be just as representative and ground scales wouldn't have to be fudged to accommodate the figures' cast-on bases either.

    Let's face it, it's all about the figures and I admit that I also fall into this category... if I was interested in actually 'wargaming', I'd game in 10mm or 6mm. I don't fantasise about re-fighting a certain war on the tabletop, I fantasise about owning really well-painted 28mm figures and spiffy buildings and terrain.

    The reality of course is that I'm an average painter at best. In Top Gear terms, I'm the guy who screws a spoiler on his Vauxhall Corsa, spray painted in his garage using cans from Halfords... not one of the guys who does all the work on 'Pimp My Ride'.

    1. That's where multiple scales come in (neatly aligned with my multiple personalities of painter/wargamer). I put my best effort into my 28mm & 15mm stuff knowing it may be years before they get played with in earnest. Meanwhile my 6mm figures are being knocked out at ten times the speed and I'll be wargaming with them within a few months of starting the project.

  10. Most of my stuff is in 6mm so detail is not an issue. Indeed, the more black 'shadow' you leave between colours, the better they look.

    Standards have improved BUT this also means that many players take to the field with half / unpainted models (I notice in the club that this is usually WH40k models). The pressure to paint to a really good standard means that people may be taking too long to get them done for the table - which I suppose defeats the object!

    1. Taking too long...I'm probably guilty of that. I've spent years painting my 15mm WWII stuff and hardly played with them (that will change a bit now that they are finished). Which for me is the main attraction of 6mm. I've painted about four years worth in little over three months.

  11. Lee - cracking post, and well done to those who have left comments as well - almost as thought provoking....

    I was reading Legatus's latest blog post just this morning and he said the same thing - how frustrating it is not to be able to match the quality of painting we see on an almost daily basis now....

    With regard to the original question I have to say I'm in two minds - yes the standard of photography has improved out of all recognition, but so have the quality of the sculpts/physiognomy of our the little metal men - hand in hand they bring the best out of some which is on the whole a good thing....

    In the back of my mind though there is also the thought that like Legatus, I find it a little disincentive'ising - my figures are never going to be painted to that standard so why am I trying so hard......

    The other problem is the sheer quantity of material that is shared - in the end it begins to feel a little like your trying to eat a duvet.....

    One last random comment - that black and white photo, and a few others of the same game, was enough to kick start an entire period for me - 30 years after I first saw them... the image stayed with me all that time.... they don't have to be digital and super fine coloured....... :o)

    1. Thanks for the thumbs up. Glad you enjoyed it.

      I can see how such high quality painting can leave one feeling disincentivised (not sure that's actually a word). Sometimes I look at 15mm figures and think "how in the hell did he get that level of detail?!?". But I know I'll never reach that standard and have learned to accept it...even as I try harder next time.

      As I said in one of my comments above, painting multiple scales to different levels of detail has helped me separate the two halves of my personality and assuage my guilt when I knock out a purely 'wargames stanadard' figure.

    2. Everyone who paints there own figures needs to come to a sensible conclusion of their own painting abilities and what they want out of the hobby. I'm very happy with the way I paint 15mm figures, they're not going to win any awards but they look fine when out on the gaming table. Yes I can paint to a higher quality, but what's the point. I could crack out 2 units of 18 figures in the same time a 1 really really nice one, But my aim is to actually play with them. As for photo's, they drive me up the wall, for a normal post on my blog I'll probably take 20 odd pics, then chose 5 or 6 ones that I'm semi-happy with. Most of the time the figures look nothing like they do in real life. Not sure how to correct this apart from spending this years wargaming fund on some decent photgraphy equipment....and we know that's not going to happen!!!
      I do prefer Miniature Wargames to the WW2 mag. Real used wargaming figures against figures I can only hope to own when my numbers come out on a Saturday night rollover....just my take?

  12. Interesting ... for a non-wargamer like me!
    I've tried to read all the post and the comments: not really easy for me, but I think that I could say:
    -I paint for having fun, to be proud of what I can do!
    -Sometimes, like I'm not a quick painter, I wish to be faster because I can't paint all what I would like .

    -Honesty, closed pictures on some wargames figures show me "strange painting styles" and are not my cup of tea! but I think that I can imagine the effects on the table!

    After all, it's an own choice, and I'm not a judge: I suppose that everybody (high or low standard painting) is happy to do what he do!

    I'm happy to do what I do!

  13. A great post - thanks, Lee!

    What I find interesting (although I'm no expert in it and others have, I know, written about it at length) is the changing styles of painting since I've been in the hobby (20 years).

    I'm not talking about fancy stuff like non-metallic metals or light-sourcing models, but given that my primary focus has always been 40K (though I veer more now into 15mm) I can look at early 90s White Dwarfs and gave in wonder at how stark, simplistic and technicolorful models were then - even the professional stuff!

    And yes, the technology really has moved us on, as you note. Disregarding the photographic advances, we now have amazing acrylic paints, decal softeners, static grass and (let us not forget) far greater access to full-colour source images.

    It is a golden age, methinks.

  14. well said, Lee.

    I guess for me, the improving standards was one of the reasons I quit. If I had learned how I could get decent results quickly, I might still be in, but now I just can't be bothered.

    I have resisted outsourcing the painting for a long time (even when I could afford it) because there is a bit of a wargamers code that you paint your minis yourself (they fight better that way, even if they look as ugly as my Saxon cheveaux legers lanciers).

    One of the glossies used to have a policy of only using average quality painting for its pictures. That at least helps to reduce the burden of expectations. It's not a life style for everyone of us, you know?

  15. Great article

    I used to send all my figs to get painted, because I hated how they looked when I did them

    Finally a really good friend of mine got me to try it again and showed me how to "block paint" and then wash the figures.

    Now I actually enjoy painting although speed is still an issue so I do have some painted for me (well, more then some, like 75%) just cuz Im still too slow.

    Id like to get better at pictures for my game blog and game store as well, but not enough time to game what I want, let alone paint and take photos of it all.

    thanks for the great article.

  16. Having come from a scale modelling background, into the world of the figure shovers, my painting and model making skills were honed on much larger stuff. I enjoy the painting and modelling side of things, just as much as I enjoy the gaming aspect. I paint to relax, nothing quite like a spell of plasticard butchery, or figure molesting after a stressful day at work. However, I wish i could paint a lot quicker! I spend endless hours farting about, shading and highlighting, adding all sorts of nonsense, when gaming mates can go bish, bash ,bosh, and have a reasonably well painted army out on the table. I also love pouring over books, magazines and assorted websites, admiring the incredibly high standards shown. It provides a huge amount of encouragement to me, plus you get the added bonus of excellent ideas for your own paint schemes. I get a lovely sense of achievement when I have produced a well painted figure, or a challenging scratchbuild.
    Glossy pics of well executed paint jobs, long may it carry on, and provide the inspiration for gamers, and painters everywhere.

  17. As ever Lee, a thought provoking well written piece, well done. :)

  18. I do like to see pictures of figures painted to the highest standard. They can be quite inspirational.

    But I'm more than happy with my own block paint and wash painting that can be charitably described as "wargames standard". But I put the toys on good looking bases and they look just fine in games.

    Loads of examples on

    And I can churn the things out at a decent rate and get them on the table for a game, that's what matters to me.

  19. I think the greatest influence on painting standards has to be the ability for us to see each others' work and learn about techniques, initially through magazines and now via the interweb. However, the benefit of this is governed by a person's character. Someone who has a natural artistic ability and is a 'driven' sort of individual is likely to be the one with the huge, beautifully painted armies (and the one we all hate!). Take away the 'driven' trait and insert 'pragmatic' and the armies probably get smaller (DBA?). Take an idle day dreamer (who me?) and you end up with lots of WIP projects.

    Figure gamers love toy soldiers (and kit) and don't want simple manoeuvering counters. Consequently, I believe it's good that people want to be better painters - it's natural to want to improve any skill. It's also a sad, but true fact that both skill and speed improve with practice; it's inevitable. Nevertheless, character aside, you've got to be able to settle on a style and an acceptable skill level if you want to crash out armies. There's still the facility to improve and learn new techniques, but you can use the command figures or 'specials' for that.

    Photography? Don't make me laugh. I couldn't take a decent photograph even if God pressed the shutter. But photographs schizophrenic. Poor painting looks even worse in a close up shot, but clever lighting and follow up 'photoshopping' actually can make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.

  20. I used to get disenchanted at the level of painting skill out there. Then, I accepted that while I admired it, I didn't have the patience, time or desire to get up to that level. Now I am comfortable with block paint and dip and get the figures on the table because I enjoy the game far more than the painting. I have gone so far as to play DBA with MDF counters. Frankly in the middle of a tough fight, I barely see the figures.

    To each their own with no shaming needed.

  21. I'm with you, Pat G. I have never been particularly interested in the 'diorama/modelling' side of the hobby. If - like HG Wells could in 1913 - I was able to afford ready painted figures, I'd buy them like a shot! I enjoy reading history, researching battles, writing my own rules/adapting other people's to suit my tastes and actually playing wargames. Painting the figures is a tedious, but necessary chore for me, though I appreciate others enjoy it and can admire their artistry. What I dislike is a tendency, in some quarters, to equate the quality of a wargame with the aesthetic appearance of the troops and terrain.
    I, too, was inspired by the old black and white photos of battlefields crowded with toy soldiers; the close ups of exquisitely painted individual figures don't inspire me, they just remind me what a poor painter I am...

  22. lee - you're now (in)famous!

    1. Cool... Thanks for spotting that. I also got a mention on their FB page. Fame at last! Lol.

      I'm glad the article went down well and generated so much interest. The comments & discussion here have been excellent and really enjoyable to follow.

  23. I am a tad late to these articles but I had a discussion with fellow gamers recently about how high standards have become and, how we are starting to reject that. Some images show a standard that I think is unobtainable within the practical world of most gamers. The practical world much spare time we have, how much we can or are willing to spend on paints and brushes and so on and also the practicality of getting our figures on a games table which is why we got them in the first place.
    Oddly enough I actually find that if I spend too much time on a figure I can ruin it. Knowing when to stop is part of my painting mantra.

  24. I can honestly say that no photo of gloriously painted figures has ever inspired me to 'up my game'. A nice neat block painting job with not too much detail will do me fine. Indeed, I sometimes think that figures painted to too high a standard detract from the look of a game, by drawing too much attention to individual models. The game's the thing!

  25. As one whose eyesight has become a little problematic with age, I can't 'do' the ultra-high standard anyhow, but I'll do the best I can.

    But here's a thing. I follow quite a few wargaming blogs, whose standard of presentation varies widely in terms of skill in application or modelling. Often I find the most appealing pictures are those that many might find crudely presented and roughly finished. For some reason what I'm looking at seems so much more 'accessible', or the presenter's imagination has gone into something other than the look of the soldiery or the terrain pieces.

    I'll admire the works of art as they deserve. But I'll spend as much time looking at the less 'finished' work of those with other priorities.

  26. I'm one of those responsible, being a full time painter and selling on eBay (War-painter) since the earliest days of eBay and have seen huge advances in quality since then.

    But hey we have to pay our bills too which for us means striving to be better than the other guys selling on eBay. Most people wouldn't get out of bed for the wages painters earn.

    If you can't paint then block paint and use a 'wash' which should give very good results. Good basing makes a huge difference in the look of figures and can make bad figures look great or very bad basing can make good figures look mediocre.

    My advice to people who find painting a real chore is to spend those hours doing overtime at work and buy what you want ready painted.

    Lea (war-painter)

  27. Very interesting stuff...time, money, physical ability all have their effect on us. The more worrying thing for me is the pressure being applied in the first place and where that originates. We should be an inclusive hobby and respect each and everyone's contributions to it. It's supposed to be fun...

  28. I've been at this game for just over forty years now and started with hundreds of Airfix Napoleonics painted by me and our kid when we were about fourteen. Figures I'm glad we've still got and I'll tell you why... enmasse they look impressive enough for anyone that loves toy soldiers, more importantly, they're just about indestructible. Which really counts when blokes of pensionable age, too vain to wear their goggles, mistime their grope with gnarled arthritic tenticles and smash a couple of stands with the devastation of a real cannon ball. Bit of glue, lick of Humbrol, and a bath in gloss varnish..then it's straight back to the front for our Heroes!
    Contrast this to my collection of over a thousand 15mm Penninsular British Horse, Foot and Guns painted for me by Ron Redworth... they're that good even I daren't touch 'em, never mind the halfwits that regularly rampage through my wargames room! These magnificently painted figures have never graced the battlefield, they aren't wargame figures, they're military miniatures... perfect exaple of being careful wot you wish for!!!

  29. Another thing's come back to mind while I was musing the above. When I left art college at eighteen or nineteen, my standard of painting of both display and wargames figures/models was second to none. I well recall one of my mate's saying he could never wargame as he couldn't paint like that. I was a smug bastard in them days, and gave him the idiot's guide to block painting. Six weeks later he deployed his scruffy offerings for battle, and popped my balloon brilliantly with the innocent observation...
    " Once they're on the wargames table it's hard to tell the difference between yours and mine, isn't it."
    Baz is in his seventies now... his pathetically painted Legions still see me off on a regular basis.

  30. I will speak heresy. Although any well-painted figure seen close up is a joy to behold, I find that too much shading/highlights merely serves to make the figures look like multi-hued smudges on a tabletop. To me, they lose their "pop". The details the shading, etc. is meant to highlight just does not work well from a distance.
    To me, they seem to busy. And the smaller the figure, the more the accumulation of trim, equipment and shading obscures them when seen at a distance. this is also true when troops are, in any scale, en masse.


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