Brian Holland

by Brian Holland

Reuben McCallum, Melbourne-based painter, wargamer and the artist in question, took the time this week to speak with me about all things mini-painting, including his very humble beginnings.

‘My very first experience with painting was -and this puts a date on me-, when the original Milton Bradley Hero Quest Board Game came out in…. the early 90’s.’ McCallum said. ‘I got a bunch of enamel paints and didn’t realise turpentine ate through plastic. 

‘I made some ugly, ugly miniatures.’

McCallum took up painting again in the mid 90’s when the second edition of Warhammer: 40,000 was released, but then took a long break when he started University in 1998. Since getting back into the war gaming hobby in 2009, he has been painting consistently. 

In the past few years, with the explosion of Dungeons & Dragons has come a swathe of people both new and old to the miniature painting aspect of the hobby. When starting out, it can be a little daunting, and you might even consider just leaving your mini as grey plastic rather than break out the brushes and paints and try something new.

‘When I first started,’ McCallum said, ‘I wish I’d had someone to step me through the very basics.’

This wasn’t just a reminder to not use plastic-disolving glue, either. Although that would have helped.

‘I think if someone had told me to paint something every day, it would have been good advice.’ McCallum said, reminiscent. ‘There’s a lot to painting that’s skill created through repetition. The more you do it, the better you get. Like eyes, for example.

‘Eyes are the first thing new painters say they can’t do.’ McCallum went on. ‘ They say “It’s too hard,” or “my eyes always look stupid or cross-eyed” or something. The ability to do eyes well is just a matter of developing the close-in coordination skills of doing it dozens and dozens of times. 

‘If you practice every day, you get better at it without learning anything- you’ll get better by trying it. Painting every day keeps you in touch with the skills you’re developing as you go.’

People new to mini painting need to know to undercoat their miniature (preferably in a lighter colour, as it makes detail easier to pick out), and remember to thin down their paints with a little water, too.

‘In some ways, people who aren’t painting for war gaming have an advantage.’ McCallum said of Dungeons & Dragons miniatures. ‘They’re not staring at books with models painted by people who get paid to do it as a full time job. And that means they’re not developing a complex about how not-good their painting is.

‘If you want to begin with painting one miniature really well, focus on the part of that miniature that interests you.’ McCallum said. ‘So, like, if the mini has a really cool set of armour, spend your time painting that cool set of armour. Every miniature has details that attracts you. Right now, I really love painting faces, so I spend way more time doing that.

‘If you focus on something that interests you, you’ll enjoy yourself.’

When you’re starting out in miniature painting, it’s about focusing on your own growth and progression. Be proud of every model you finish, even if you’re not 100% happy with it, it’s still a project you completed, and it’s still a notch on the belt of progress.

‘People who pick up the hobby new, but make an effort to get things completed get better really fast.’ McCallum said. ‘Whereas people who treat it as a chore and come back to it once every year, say it was painful and never go back- they don’t tend to show great improvement over time.’

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It’s important not to get caught up on other people’s skills. Painting, like most art, is a very personal thing, and you should treat it as such.

‘There’s a lot of people who say “I can’t paint, I don’t like it, I never enjoy it” and they look and someone else and say “I’ll never paint like that.”’ McCallum said. ‘I’ve had those thoughts too. I’ll look at Angel Giraldez and want to tip all my paints in the bin. A lot of people assume day one you’ll be as good as the guys who have spent every day doing it for the last 20 years.

‘It’s a skill.’ McCallum continued. ‘It takes work and repetition, and you’ll get better at it.’

A fully-fledged war game can be a rewarding but big undertaking. When you’re new to the scene, you’re seeing dozens and dozens of models, terrain, dice- stacks of books, and if you’re just wanting to get stuck into a new army, knowing where to begin when you sit down at your painting table is a far-cry from the single D&D mini you may have worked on in the past.

‘If you’re starting out with a game like Warhammer: Age of Sigmar and you’ve never painted anything on that scale before, often an army that’s got an easy method is a good way to start.’ McCallum told me. ‘So I wouldn’t suggest someone start out playing Idoneth Deepkin because they’re full of fiddly details and different colour choices.

‘Most basic models can be made to look really effective with about three areas of colours. Generally this is armour colour, inlay colour (like shoulder pads), and cloth colour.’

Once you’ve settled on an army to collect and build, you’ll find yourself sitting at your painting desk with twenty, -maybe more-, unpainted tiny dolls staring back at you.

This moment is probably a mixture of exciting and daunting. On one hand, you’re starting a new project and that’s always great, but on the other, you’ve actually gotta paint them all, and that can take a whole lot of time if you’re not used to games with lots of models. 

‘I would start out by painting one model so that you know your batch method works and isn’t too painful.’ McCallum said of the endeavour. ‘If one model takes eight or nine hours, you’re not gonna live through that project: You’re gonna be exhausted. Save those nine-hour paint jobs for the signature models in your army.’ 

The best way to go about painting a whole bunch of similar models for your army is to use a process called “Batch Painting.” When you Batch Paint, you’re gonna take maybe five or ten models from your collection, and make a production line- working on just a single part of each model in a row.

By the time you finish the last model in the line, the first one is ready for the next coat.

‘When you do about ten models at once, you’re saving some time because you’re not switching back and forth between each model.’ McCallum told me. ‘You might work on the base skin tone for all ten models. You just use one paint, and you’re not worrying about time for the paint to dry.

‘Remember,’ he went on, ‘paint something every day, even if it’s a tiny something. Say you’re brain dead today- you’ll put on episodes of Buffy or some show you know back-to-front, and then just paint some belts on people because you can’t be assed doing anything else. That’s fine. Do that.’

McCallum says there is an inertia involved in painting a large number of models, or when working on a big project. You need to keep the momentum going because if you get stuck, or drop out, then you’ll disconnect and it will be hard to pick up where you left off.

‘There is a tipping point between [big projects] being a chore and an addiction.’ McCallum said. ‘You want to ultimately tip yourself into the addiction category- and that comes through doing it every day.’ 

The world of miniature painting is truly captivating, and that’s before you get into the greater hobbies like Roleplaying or tabletop war games. But you don’t have to ever do anything more than paint your miniature.

There is no right or wrong way to go about getting into the hobby, and personally, I think everyone should try it regardless of what their other hobby interests may be. 

‘If you get into painting, it’s a great way of engaging in a mindful behaviour without having to listen to whale sounds.’ McCallum said of the appeal. ‘You’re focussed on a small, kinaesthetic activity. You’re not thinking about the stressful outside world- you’re just there and focussed on the tip of your paint brush.

‘Once you get to the point where it feels easy, you get a sense of mastery.’ He said. ‘It’s calming, relaxing, and is part of my mental health routine.’

‘I think on a really basic level there is a part of me that is a 10 year-old kid that would look at the models I own and would think it’s the coolest think ever.’ McCallum said.

‘I do it for him. Because he’s still there.’


Reuben’s Best Practices for Miniature Painting

  • Paint every day!
  • Thin your paints. A lot of the ugliest beginner paint jobs are due to someone scraping the paint out of the pot and smearing it on the model. There is so much fine detail on models these days, so thin the paint down!
  • Get a wet pallet. They’re really good, they’ll help you with blending and leave you with more working time. They might sound arcane and weird, but they’re very useful.
  • Use a separate water pot for metallic and non-metallic paints. The glitter effects from contaminated paint is very garish.
  • Take care of your brushes. A trick I learned recently was to store brushes upside down. Keep the caps on them and as the brush dries, the paint residue will go to the tip of the brush where it can be easily cleaned.