This month … painting miniatures helps Caleb Thompson appreciate the true value of specialisation
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 ( thoughtbot.com), an international web and mobile design and development consultancy