Painting models for board games is intricate work. It requires a strange mix of absolute focus and relative brainlessness as I engage in a collaboration across time with sculptors to bring small pieces of the world they’ve imagined to life. While I hold my brush by its ferrule and add miniscule highlights or glaze a surface for the fifty-fourth time, my left brain has plenty of time to draw parallels between painting and programming.
The primary tool in my painting, acrylic paint, is made by countless companies. The online retailer I often use lists at least half a dozen paint lines specialized for miniature and model painting. These lines range from a few dozen different colors to over a thousand “unique” paints. All are made up of some combination of the three primary colors in subtractive color spaces: red, yellow, and blue. Rather than learn all of these colors, I focus on a few paint colors as my tools for a task, and have developed a solid understanding of how to mix them to get shade and highlight paints as well as develop a color scheme. Understanding my tools in this way makes me more effective as a painter, just as expertise in few development tools makes me a better developer.
I recently gave similar advice to a software developer I mentor through a code bootcamp program: pick a web framework and pick a database. Learn them thoroughly, so that you can quickly think of a solution to a problem in terms of those tools. They may not always be the perfect tools, but as specialists instead of generalists we know how to mix red with a bit of orange or pink and glaze that over a basecoat rather than to spend time and money finding just the right pre-mixed shade among scores of options.
Learning to learn to use tools is also very important. When I’m painting a model, I don’t use only one or two paints. While you might look at something I’ve painted and see a main color and a few accents, I’ve probably used several colors for each area; often sharing one or more paint in the mixes so that different areas match. I need to experiment with these paints together on the palette to understand their interplay. Knowing how to do that didn’t come right away–in fact it was quite common when I started painting to pick three colors I liked and slap them on the model, shading them all with a thin black wash and calling it done. The more I learned to take advantage of warmer and cooler tones of a color, however, the more realistic I was able to make my models look.
Proficiency with a tool, whether it be a color, a brush, or a web framework, is gained through ongoing use. In a digital world where change is constant, it’s important to consider whether we want to be proficient at superficial use of many tools or to develop expertise in a few areas and use those skills broadly.