This month … paint­ing minia­tures helps Caleb Thomp­son ap­pre­ci­ate the true value of spe­cial­i­sa­tion

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Caleb Thomp­son ex­plains how paint­ing mod­els helps him fo­cus his mind

Paint­ing mod­els for board games is in­tri­cate work. I col­lab­o­rate with sculp­tors to bring small pieces of the world they’ve imag­ined to life. It takes an odd mix of fo­cus and brain­less­ness: while I hold my brush by its fer­rule and add mi­nus­cule high­lights, or glaze a sur­face for the 54th time, my left brain has time to draw par­al­lels be­tween paint­ing and pro­gram­ming.

My pri­mary tool, acrylic paint, is made by count­less com­pa­nies. An online re­tailer I use lists at least half a dozen lines for minia­ture and model paint­ing. All are made up of some com­bi­na­tion of the three pri­mary colours in sub­trac­tive colour spa­ces: red, yel­low and blue.

Rather than learn them all, I fo­cus on a few as my tools for a task, and have built an un­der­stand­ing of how to mix them to get shade and high­light paints, as well as de­vel­op­ing a colour scheme. This makes me more ef­fec­tive – just as ex­per­tise in a few dev tools makes me a bet­ter de­vel­oper.

I re­cently gave sim­i­lar ad­vice to a soft­ware de­vel­oper I men­tor: pick a web frame­work and pick a data­base. Learn them thor­oughly, so you can quickly think of a so­lu­tion to a prob­lem in terms of those tools. They may not al­ways be per­fect tools, but as spe­cial­ists we know how to mix red with a bit of orange or pink and glaze that over a basecoat rather than spend time and money find­ing a pre-mixed shade among lots of op­tions.

Learn­ing to use tools is also cru­cial. When paint­ing a model, I don’t use only one or two paints. You might look at a model and see a main colour and a few ac­cents; but I’ll likely have used sev­eral colours for each area, shar­ing one or more paints in the mixes so dif­fer­ent ar­eas match. I need to ex­per­i­ment with the paints on the pal­ette to grasp their in­ter­play.

That skill didn’t come right away – when I started it was quite com­mon for me to pick three colours I liked and slap them on the model, shade them with a thin black wash and call it done. The more I learned to take ad­van­tage of warmer and cooler tones of a colour, how­ever, the more re­al­is­tic I was able to make my mod­els.

Ex­per­tise with a tool, which could be a brush or a JS frame­work, comes via on­go­ing use. In a dig­i­tal world of con­stant change, we should con­sider whether we want to be su­per­fi­cially pro­fi­cient with many tools, or gain ex­per­tise in a few ar­eas and use those skills broadly.

Caleb is a de­vel­oper at thought­bot ( thought­, an in­ter­na­tional web and mo­bile de­sign and devel­op­ment con­sul­tancy

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