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US Style vs. European Style


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Okay, so say I want to improve. I paint, post WIPs, ask (beg) for constructive critiques and suggestions, but nothing really saying "Here's a resource or technique that may help."

 

It can be frustrating sometimes, even for experienced painters.

 

The intermediate level in miniature painting can be very frustrating. You get to a point where you're good enough with techniques and your eye has developed enough that it becomes less about how you handle the brush and paint, and more about a whole bunch of other stuff. Unfortunately identifying that whole bunch of other stuff can be pretty challenging.

 

One of the issues with that can be difficulty in getting useful critique. But to be fair, it's helpful to note that we don't teach critique or even really offer guidelines on doing it. My understanding is that it's fairly common in traditional art education for critique to be part of the process - you draw or paint in class, and then everyone reviews each other's work. I imagine that part of the process of that is the teacher also helping people learn what to look for, and learn terminology to express that, at least in the ideal.

 

This is not really part of the miniature painting field at all. We put stuff up for review and critique, but I have never seen a class or even a blog post or write-up about giving critique. (It's possible that I've missed some discussion on the topic, but it's not widely mainstream to our hobby is what I'm saying.) We don't have a standardized vocabulary, and many of us do not come from traditional art backgrounds so we lack what would there be considered basic knowledge about composition, colour theory, etc. Add in language differences for a worldwide community, and none of that makes it any easier. Then you've got factors like group culture. The group culture on Reaper forums is that feedback very supportive and encouraging. Which is wonderful in a great many ways, but it can mean that this is not an ideal place to get serious hard-nosed feedback about what's less great about your painting.

 

One suggestion I would make to people wanting more critique is to offer it. Not only for the community value of doing so, but because doing focused assessment of other people's work helps build your eye and your judgement. When you see something you like or don't like in someone's work, try to drill down to find why it works or doesn't work for you. (Even if you don't share that with the person and just do it in your head.) It's never as easy to apply that eye to your own work, but you will gradually become better at both identifying weak spots in your work AND coming up with ideas for what you could work on to try and improve. 

 

The other thing about intermediate level is there comes a point where it's less about a particular tool or technique. Technique can always be refined and improved, but at a certain stage the issue may be less about how you're applying the paint, than where, what colours, in what proportion, etc. Composition, complexity of colour, and painting the base in a fashion that's unified and to the same level as the figure all start becoming more important, but those aren't things you can point to a YouTube tutorial or weblink that explains exactly what to do. There are books and videos and guidelines that help, absolutely, but it's not like a technique that just clicks in and then you get it and you're good to go from that point forward, it's stuff you have to consciously think about and chip away at, often for the rest of your artistic life. (Some of that is also the kind of thing that some people might have a bit more natural aptitude for than others, but I like to hope it can be learned, because I'm not one of those people. ;->) 

 

I already typed a lot on the topic of contrast and how that is more complex than we sometimes make it sound over in another thread, so I'll just link to that below. Contrast and skilled placement of dark and light to replication how light behaves on various materials is pretty key to any kind of painting, but even more so when painting small things.

 

http://forum.reapermini.com/index.php?/topic/71583-msp-open-judging-what-you-were-afraid-to-ask/page-3#entry1463923

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On the issue of style...

I think this is similar to what others have said in the discussion, but here's my take on that. If I look at a piece that is intended to be painted in a different style, it needs to be obvious to me that it's an intentional choice for me to be able to judge it as a style. If I look at the Van Gogh style bust that people linked to, it's obvious that the brush strokes are intended to be visible and the colours aren't meant to be naturalistic. If I were judging that piece in the ReaperCon contest, I would have no problem assessing it on its own merits, and I would not be scoring it down because it isn't smooth.

In contrast, if I look at a piece that has has rough blending transitions, low contrast, low colour complexity, and in general looks pretty similar to minis painted by less experienced artists or that people have quick painted for game play, then I'm going to assume it's a mini painted by a less experienced painter or one that was quick painted. The intent of 'breaking the rules' or stretching stylistically needs to be clear from the piece itself. Pieces are judged by final result, not intention, nor number of hours and tears put into them, because we can't know those things. (And by judged, I mean by any viewer, not just in terms of contest results and such.) And as someone who's put a lot of hours and tears into things, yeah, that kind of sucks, but that's how it works with visual arts.

One thing I think that gets lost in these discussions sometimes is scale. The figures that are more 'painterly' (showing brushstrokes) or diverge significantly in style or approach from the norm are very rarely gaming scale. You can get a lot more detail, texture, weathering, etc. in busts, larger scale figures, monsters, vehicles, etc. than you can a standard gaming scale human figure. It's easy for some of the complex stuff that people are doing to look indistinct or even muddy on smaller scales regardless of the skill of the painter. In fact you NEED to add elements of visual complexity with larger figures for those to do well in contests because there's just so much real estate. 

When people are doing smaller scale figures or high levels of detail on pieces that we are drooling over in photos, it's possible that those might have a lot less punch seen in person. Last Christmas I painted some figures for Reaper that included presents with tiny wrapping paper designs. Most of those designs were the same ones I'd used on a previous Christmas figure I'd painted, but after a few more years of painting, I was able to paint those designs much smaller than I had the first time. I had both sets of figures in my cabinet for a while side by side. The tiny freehand looks good in the photos on the site, but in person the larger patterns actually were clearer to identify and had more impact. Likewise, while I wouldn't expect certain kinds of stylized pieces to 100% work in the round (just like with NMM), I would expect them to at least work in some respects as a 3D piece if judging them in person, because they are a 3D piece. (Or they need to be presented in a shadowbox or some other format that imposes limits on viewing angles.)
 

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When people are doing smaller scale figures or high levels of detail on pieces that we are drooling over in photos, it's possible that those might have a lot less punch seen in person. Last Christmas I painted some figures for Reaper that included presents with tiny wrapping paper designs. Most of those designs were the same ones I'd used on a previous Christmas figure I'd painted, but after a few more years of painting, I was able to paint those designs much smaller than I had the first time. I had both sets of figures in my cabinet for a while side by side. The tiny freehand looks good in the photos on the site, but in person the larger patterns actually were clearer to identify and had more impact. Likewise, while I wouldn't expect certain kinds of stylized pieces to 100% work in the round (just like with NMM), I would expect them to at least work in some respects as a 3D piece if judging them in person, because they are a 3D piece. (Or they need to be presented in a shadowbox or some other format that imposes limits on viewing angles.)

 

 

This paragraph really resonates with me.

 

I mainly paint for the tabletop.  Most of my early miniatures don't really have a style but are just about getting paint on the mini in the right places.  At a certain point in time, I got a Macro lens for my camera and started to use that to take pictures of the mini's I had painted.

 

I didn't realize this at the time but after reviewing my work using the pictures taken with the Macro lens, my painting style actually started to change.  In a way, I was painting for the camera and not for the tabletop.  The end result was that the minis I had painted looked better on camera than they did on the tabletop (where the blends didn't come out so clearly resulting in a mini which looked more monotone than I would have liked).

 

I did eventually realize the change in my painting style and in my recent miniatures, I have consciously tried to add occasional high contrast lines to the mini so that they pop more on the tabletop.  However, those high contrast lines don't look as good when viewed through the Macro lens.

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This is rather an interesting discussion, I think.  While there really aren't any formalized Schools for painting miniatures - which is to say a collection of similar Styles and the techniques used to give a particular result - there are certainly many styles that we can look at.  Each painter develops their own style as they learn, generally starting with a simple single layer of whatever mid tone they're going for and slopping it around to cover the miniature and evolving from there.  While part of defining your style involves learning new and more advanced techniques, a lot of it also involves learning what colors you like best and learning how to support and use those colors and tones to the greatest effect.

 

Any Style can work, and work well, with the proper experience.  Generally, you can tell someone who chooses to do something for stylistic reasons - a miniature that uses a single base color would have a larger range of shades to account for the lack of basic contrast.  Likewise, a style focused on visible shade lines (such as a Cell Shading-inspired style) would likely have a higher contrast between the various shades to make the shadow and highlight stand out more.  It's more about making the style work than what the style is that determines how good it is.

 

Finally, we all go through our own journey in terms of the style we use.  I started with a straight black primer with lots of drybrushing to bring out the details.  I have since moved to Zenothil shading utilizing a wash-based wet blending technique over most of the figure. 

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Another thing to consider, in some art style development, a very large factor is the introduction of a new technology. The big one that comes to my mind is Impressionism which flourished in large part because of the introduction of tube oil paints. Mini painting, as we know it now, really took off when acrylic paint pots permitted market offering a choice for hobby paint that wasn't enamel. 

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