The Joy of Miniature Painting

Well hello there folks, welcome to another episode of The Joy of Miniature Painting. I’m Caleb Hearth and I’ll be your host for the evening.

I have pre-recorded this talk. This is allowing me to focus on the live painting performance. As it turns out, I am terrible at multitasking. I would have to pause whenever speaking and I don’t think I’d get everything covered that I want to. Caleb! Sit up straight.

I paint. Whenever I tell people that, they understandably assume I mean on a canvas. I paint miniatures.

Tonight we’ll be painting Rheinholt, Gobber Speculator. He’s a happy little miniature used in the tabletop game Warmachine.

We want happy paintings. Happy paintings. If you want sad things, watch the news.

In miniature painting, there are numerous techniques which can be used. Many of these, such as striping, glazing, or two brush blending are time consuming. Others, like pigment shading or zenithal highlighting, involve additional supplies beyond brushes and paint. If you’ve done any painting on canvas or elsewhere, you may recognize some of these terms. They’re not really unique to miniature painting, they’re just techniques we’ve appropriated.

In the interest of time and because I would like to complete something today, I’ll be going over a just few tools in a painter’s utility belt: dry brushing, washing, and basecoating.

I can’t go over 45 minutes, because we have a mean ol’ organizer with no sense of humor.

Painting is sort of a general term. I also dabble in things like “converting” miniatures by changing them from what their sculptor intended by changing a pose or swapping body parts, in “basing” them by giving them interesting surroundings that help bring the models to life by showing them running over rocks in a bridge or crouching behind a fallen pillar, and in building terrain to make the battleground more interesting than a flat, wide-open field of green grass. There are less glamorous parts of the hobby like cleaning mould lines or picking the super glue out from under my fingernail after I assemble the bits. But most of my time is spent painting. That’s good, because it’s the most exciting to me.

Painting is my hobby. It gives me an outlet from work that I find more satisfying than lying on the couch watching Netflix. It lets me step away from the technical and interpersonal demands of my job. It uses the creative, imaginative half of my brain that gets less exercise than the logical, analytical hemisphere. I can lose myself for hours getting the right wet-blended color gradient for a rippling cloak or finding the perfect transition between the shadows and highlights of a muscular arm. I’m pretty terrible at woodgrain, but I do that too.

Having a hobby is super important. People with hobbies are generally healthier. They’re also at a lower risk for depression and dementia. I came into the hobby already depressed. When I’m painting, I can almost forget that.

As all miniature painters soon learn, there are a few super easy ways to take a flat and boring piece and give it vibrancy and visual interest. The very first step of painting a model is to basecoat it. This is the step where you throw down the “base” color of each section. Paint a leather belt in a mid-brown. Stone is grey. Cloth might be green or blue or red. When applying paint, we usually want to add some amount of water to thin the paint. The amount can change drastically based on the brand of paint, and even on the specific color. A common description of the desired result is that the paint should have the consistency of skim milk. From what I’ve been able to gather, when people say this they’re mostly regurgitating something they’ve been told. A painter gets a feel for the right amount of water for a paint through some amount of trial and error. For base coating, you might want somewhere in the neighborhood of 2:1 paint to water. For other painting, closer to 1:1 is desired. Why are we thinning down the paints? Doing so prevents them from clogging small details in the model’s sculpt, and it allows for a much smoother coat. Think about it this way: When we paint the walls of our houses, we want to fill in tack and nail holes. We accomplish this by using undiluted paint straight from the bucket. Roll it right onto the wall and our sins are forgiven. On a miniature, a lot of details aren’t even that large. Thinning helps keep from losing those. In my experience, not thinning paint enough (especially during the basecoat step) is the only thing we can’t come back from by staying calm and thinking about how to fix something.

This is why the miniature you see me Real Life me painting a miniature with some paint already on it. I basecoated ahead of time, because it’s a little bit boring to watch. I wouldn’t do that to you. Don’t worry. It’s like a 3D coloring book. It can be fun.

A basecoated miniature could totally be used in a game. Any way you want it to be, that’s just right. But there are some tricks you can use to get a better looking model without much more work, and it really makes all that time spent basecoating pay off.

The first is shading. This is the process of relatively brightening forward the colors in your model by darkening the parts where light doesn’t shine as much. The simplest way to shade is to use a pre-mixed wash liberally over an area of a model. Highly textured areas work great for this. Chainmail? Throw black shade over the grey or metallic paint to really show off the links. Hair? Use brown or even blue shade to add depth and character to the area.

Caleb! Show these nice folks how shading works. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

While the paint dries on the that, I’d like to talk about something more serious. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, One in four adults in America experiences mental illness. These can include schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder, and others. Yet, approximately 60% of adults do not seek treatment.

Mental illness affects our work and personal lives. Serious mental illness costs America almost 200 billion dollars in lost earnings per year. I want you to look at around the room. One in four of us is probably suffering from some sort of mental health issue.

And yet, there is a stigma around mental health issues. We are afraid that if we admit to being sick, others will judge us for it. We are afraid to seek treatment for it for fear that others will find out. And sometimes we even create false limits for ourselves because we are unsure we will be able to succeed.

I encourage you, if you feel that you may have some illness, to seek help. You should be able to feel comfortable going to friends or close coworkers to discuss things like this. Sometimes just talking some of these things out helps a lot. Then again, sometimes we need a little more help from a professional. We shouldn’t be afraid to do that either.

This is your bravery test.

Now if we are going to be able to trust our friends and coworkers, that means that we need to be willing to listen to each other when we say that we have something serious to say. I know it can be difficult, but sometimes not saying anything at all is the best way to help our friends.

How we interact with each other is really important. We need to be sensitive to each other’s situations, cognizant that we may not know all there is about them. We need to be available and supportive of our friends and peers.

There are some much smarter people than me talking about this. People like Ed Finkler and Jen Akullian. You can find a few of them on Mental Health Prompt, This is a wonderful organization dedicated to getting the conversation going to help people working in the tech industry affected by mental health issues.

And that’s the biggest way we can make a change. We can beat the stigma around mental health by simply talking about it more.

Alright, let’s have a little fun.

Once the wash has dried, we can move onto the simplest way to highlight an area: drybrushing. With drybrushing, we break our paint thinning rule. Usually done with a brush with firmer bristles and without a point, drybrushing takes undiluted or only slightly diluted paint and applies it very lightly over an area. This is accomplished by taking the lighter-colored paint onto the brush, then wiping most of it off onto a rag or the back of your hand.

This is the hardest part of this method. If you can do this, you can do anything.

Once there’s almost no paint left, we can lightly run the brush over a textured area to leave paint mostly on the highest areas with the sharpest corners.

Shwooop. Hehe. You have to make those little noises, or it just doesn’t work.

These are the opposite of the deep areas the wash settled into, and they leave us with a cool progression of dark to light paint.

This is all stuff I’d learned about before I ever picked up a brush. I got into the hobby with a coworker as an excuse to spend more time with him and learn a new thing.

The secret to doing anything is believing that you can do it. Anything that you believe you can do strong enough, you can do. Anything. As long as you believe.

I’d like to talk a bit more generally about Hobbies. Since I’m the one on stage, I guess that means I get to do that. I promised I’d talk about how hobbies can prevent burnout. In the original title of this talk, “Painting Miniatures to Stay Fresh”, the concept of “Stay Fresh” was more about not getting tired of what you’re doing that acknowledging how cool you are. (and you are.) (yes you)


Burnout is a form of psychological stress and vital exhaustion. While the American Psychiatric Association does not consider it a disorder, it is recognized by the World Health Organization. For our purposes, we can say that it is a mental health disorder.

Burnout manifests as being tired and without energy, feeling demoralized, and increased irritability.

According to the MacArthur Foundation, it’s been suggested that it can be a result of resources for adapting to stress being broken down.

You may have heard the metaphor of a battery representing the certain amount of mental energy available each day. Burnout can be considered similarly. We have a certain amount of battery for dealing with the stresses presented by our work, by writing code, and by sitting in front of a computer. We all “recharge” differently, but for many people doing something very different is effective.

People with Type A behavior patterns are more likely to be effected by burnout, according to the World Health Organizations International Statistical Classifications of Diseases. Type A personality is characterized by high ambition, desire for achievement, impatience, competitiveness, and a sense of urgency. Some or all of these traits are present in many of us, and I certainly recognize some of each of those in myself.


Doing something creative and challenging that has nothing to do with computers helps to break up the concepts of work and play.

Do you ever go home and still have some work problem churning in the back of your mind? I don’t know about you, but it’s not uncommon for me to untangle that sort of thing as soon as I stop thinking about it consciously. Hobbies like painting are a great way to be focused on one task and unconsciously working through other things. You wouldn’t believe how helpful it can be just to step away.

I know this is somewhat uncouth advice in a culture that pushes developers to always be ahead of the curve. I’ve found it to be very effective in increasing happiness, and in preventing and reversing professional burnout. A healthy work / life balance is, to me, far more important than always being familiar with the latest javascript framework. We’ve known this for a long time. In the 1880’s, organized labor groups petitioning for 8 hour work days used the slogan:

8 hours for work, 8 hours for sleep, 8 hours for what we will

Hobbies are great for building relationships and for meeting new people. They usually involve some sort of accomplishment. With painting, I want to show off my achievement. Birdwatchers want to brag about the rare species they saw. Grease monkeys want to share the roar of the engine and the feeling of a smooth acceleration. Hobbies give introverts like me an excuse to talk to people we wouldn’t otherwise meet.

They’re also a great way to recharge. We all want to be around people (yeah, even us introverts). But we also need time alone. I can paint with others around or alone at home. I can paint at home then show off to my friends later. I can paint with others then take my masterpiece back and put it in my showcase.

Some hobbies even let us make money. Sites like Etsy are a great way to start selling custom leatherwork or knitting.

If you don’t have one already, consider starting a hobby. Write poetry; join an improv club; learn to work wood; paint. Whatever you do, get away from the glowing boxes we surround ourselves with so much as developers. It will give you time alone, an excuse to geek out with others, and accomplishments to share. It will and help you meet new people, and to prevent burnout at work. If you’re very lucky, it will make you happier.


I’m about to wrap up here. I’d like to thank my employer, thoughtbot, for both allowing me to come and chat with y’all, and for enabling me to do so by covering my costs. thoughtbot is a fantastic place to work, and do a lot to help prevent occupational stresses. If you’re interested in working with us, please do come talk to me about that. We’re a design and development consultancy and if you have a product that could use an expert hand, I’d love to chat about that as well.

I also organize Keep Ruby Weird, a Ruby conference up in Austin. We’ll be back in October of next year and I hope to see y’all there.

For more on mental health, conferences, and painting follow me on Twitter. @calebthompson.


Before I go, I’d also like to give a big thank you to Bob Ross. Back when I was growing up and he’d be on PBS, my parents would watch him sometimes. He always bored me back then. But in preparing for this talk I watched a lot of The Joy of Painting, and he’s just a very happy, calming gentleman. If you ever watched any of The Joy of Painting, you may have noticed that there are a few Bob Ross quotes in this talk. And of course, I’m dressed up as him right now. So thank you, Bob.

From all of us here I’d like to wish you happy painting and we’ll see you next time