Saturday, 17 May 2014

Technique vs imagination

Interesting exchange of views on the Oldhammer facebook group about this historic figure:

It's a unique conversion by Bryan Ansell, painted by John Blanche, and many of you will recognise it as the Xaxus Chaos-Thrall conversion detailed in the First Citadel Compendium. I've loved that particular article since I first saw it - the situation is one that anybody rolling up chaos attributes finds themselves in: "how the &%@$ am I meant to model that??" And so with the help of razor saw, wire, and milliput, a Citadel Weretiger is given a Dwarf's head with added horns, a unnaturally long neck, and bob's your chaotically malformed uncle.

As one would expect, this was the cue for an old school love-in. Until someone (name redacted to protect the innocent!) decides to break ranks and say: "That model and the painting are so horendously ugly!" Later on the same fellow explained himself a bit more "compared to today's standards, the model is butt-ugly... I admire the thing for the historical value, especially becáuse things have progressed so far and wide. What do you think would have happened if this was made one month ago, and posted on CMoN for example? I'm sure you agree that from an objective standpoint, the model is horrible. The painting is flat and undetailed, the sculpting of the model very basic and out of proportion. It only makes sense when looked at in context of the time this was made, compared to later stuff, the difference is stunning."

Well, that definitely gave me food for thought. I can see where he's coming from, of course. Enamels can look very strange in a world of acrylics, and it certainly doesn't have a naturalistic feel. On the other hand, one could argue that it's not meant to look naturalistic, and the point about being "out of proportion" doesn't really work when the nature of chaos mutations is to distort proportion! To me, it has the feel of something from a medieval bestiary, or a weird creature in the marginalia of a monastic manuscript... not a thing of this world, but a thing of fantasy. But sure, I suppose one has to agree that the technique is crude compared to what we see from virtuoso painters today (and, of course, compared to Blanche's own later virtuoso painting). But is technical skill a virtue in its own right? For me, what this model stands for is the triumph of imagination. Yes, people's craftsmanship and skill at colouring-in may have improved. But is "the hobby" as creative, as imaginative, as open to inspiration? I'm astonished to hear anybody talk about "progress" in this way, especially in this group. Technical progress has been made at the expense of joy.

I am a pretty poor painter myself, and I don't want this to come across as making excuses for poor technique. I like looking at the work of many of the master-painters I've come across in this community, and I do try and learn lessons from the excellent work I see because I want to get better. Many of the people whose blogs I have in my blogroll I follow in part to learn from them. (Whiskey Priest, Thantsants, Asslessman, and others.) But it's never just technique for its own sake... I would always prefer an average paintjob that is memorable and imaginative and tells a story of its own to a virtuoso paintjob that is forgettable. I mean, I looked at Coolminiornot after reading this exchange on facebook, and I agree, there's some amazing technique on display, and probably if this conversion was posted there it would be panned. But here's the thing: after looking at some of the top submissionthere, 5 minutes later I couldn't remember a single one. Absolutely nothing about them stuck in my mind. Why? Because they didn't tell a story, because they didn't capture something imaginative. Whereas that Ansell/Blanche creation is immensely memorable because (in my opinion) it's impossible to look at it WITHOUT telling stories about it. Technique is all very well, but its no guarantee of wonder. That's why I generally prefer quirky 80s sculpts to the perfect CAD models of today. Often they're not accurate or naturalistic, but they make me want to play because I start to imagine the worlds they inhabit and the adventures they'll have.

What I'm saying is that technique, while important, can become the enemy of imagination. If you're so concerned with being "naturalistic", then you're not open to the world of fantasy and the weird and wacky possibilities of the universe of imagination. And if you're so concerned with trying to imitate the technical style of particular experts, then you're giving up control of your own imagination to somebody whose work is held as an ideal. You're just doing cover versions that are never going to be as good as the real thing, when you could be doing something unique instead.

I was reminded of a fantastic article by Matt Stevens in Issue 37 of the RPG fanzine Imazine back in 2002. There he argues "Most rolegamers, it seems, judge artwork on the basis of its realism and professionalism. They condemn the amateurish scribbling of the early rolegames, comparing them unfavourably to the slick colour prints of today. I'm not sure that rolegame artwork is getting any better - in some ways, I'd say it's actually getting worse." Yes, he accepts that the skill of the artists has improved. But the illustrations no longer intrigue the spectator. Good draughtsmanship is on display, but it doesn't conjure up anything in the imagination of the people looking at it. The basic argument that Matt Stevens makes there is that some of the original 1970s D&D monsters manual entries, amateurish as they may be, haunted our imaginations and made us want to play. Do the polished illustrations of the early 21st century do the same?

"What distinguishes the best rolegame artists from the mediocre ones? If you could summarize the difference in one word, it’s imagination. The good ones show us things we never saw before, while the hacks churn out the same stuff over and over again." I agree: and I'd say that if you want to learn about imagination, you'll get more out of that Ansell/Blanche conversion than anything on Coolminiornot. And then... this is the important bit... don't try to imitate it. Instead, do your own thing. Tell your own story.


  1. While I agree with a lot of your points, you have to keep in mind that nostalgia is great for clouding judgement.

    Anecdotally, I think the people who criticise the old minis never grew up with them. They were indoctrinated into the hobby post 2000's, saw all this flashy new stuff & thought "this is the high watermark".

    The same thing occurs when you get the same guys to play oldschool video games. They think they are rubbish! But for us, they remind us of our youth & the great times we had playing them with our friends.

    Sometimes its hard to distinguish artistic talent from nostalgia, but in the end it's a moot point, because beauty will always remain in the eye of the beholder.

    1. I do think you're spot on in saying that sometimes this is just about nostalgia. In some ways, I'm an unusual case in this regard, because I got into wargaming in the 1990s and gradually developed the sense that "something was missing"; but in general, I do find myself overcome by an almost pathological nostalgia and sentimentality in many areas, so this is something that we have to factor in.

  2. For me, technique is just a tool and therefore cannot be blamed. Technique doesn't kill imagination it just opens more doors to it. Seeking to improve technique only does though which is where I agree with you.
    I can't help but think this conversion was done by people who invented and helped develop technique and both their technical and artistic skills made our hobby what it is now.
    CMON is just like pro sport, less fun and more technique and competition, just like tournament playing. They're extreme ends of our hobby. We seem to like a more balanced mix with story and imagination having the best part which is why this conversion is a source of wonder to us I guess. That's all there is to it I think.

    1. Hi Asslessman, thanks for commenting on this. I am a musician and so I do think a great deal about parallel questions of technique vs creativity there. I think there is a certain level of technical ability in music that makes the magic possible (so if you're learning piano, do your scales and exercises, because all the expression in the world is useless if you can't get your fingers around notes!) But I think that sometimes high levels of technique can lead to a musician being caught up in a very particular way of playing, and the best musicians are those who can transcend that. So I do believe that technique can open doors, and with regards to painting I like to observe great painters like you to try and get better so that one day in the future I can make what's in my head come to life a bit more effectively. But in general, the world of painting seems to have become sanitized and lacking in soul EVEN as it becomes technically better. And that's what I'm trying to get my head around here. I think one of the key problems is naturalism; while certain things can be learned from naturalism (e.g. how to get shading right on a face) the idea of fantasy being constrained by naturalism is just silly! I'm dreaming of seeing people's abstract expressionist masterpieces brought to the gaming table!

    2. I nearly used the music analogy but opted for sport since it's more popular. I get what you mean in the end and I agree. It requires some talent not to be overcome by technique and to let it be just a tool and a vehicle for imagination.
      I also agree that some things we can now see on CMON are really boring to me because it's the same NMM with super bleedings all the time with inhuman freehands where there should be none.
      I tend to forget those kind of pianters and only look for artists first. Hopefully we've had great artists through the years , from Fraser Gray (great technician AND artist) and lots of really talented folks to get inspiration from.

    3. Would love to know what painters you look for along those kind of "artist first" lines. Would make a fascinating and educational blogpost or post on the oldhammer forum?

  3. Interesting post. It is difficult to argue against the anonymous poster, and as you say, in many ways, he is right.
    But, I am with you. I look at CMON or the latest Golden Demons and I am bored. All the figures look the same saturated gritty dull colours with super blending and NMM. there is not much individuality on display. I find myself going back to look at Golden Demons from the 1990s where everything was superbright and had huge colour contrasts.

    No doubt it is part nostalgia, but things did seem to be more individual back in the day. Even leaving technique aside, there was a much greater variety of conversions and paintschemes, which I am not seeing so much these days.

    1. Yes, it's exactly that kind of individuality and creative spark that's often missing. You raise an interesting point about the "gritty dull colours", as I think part of the problem may be the overwhelming embrace of the 'grimdark' ethos as the only way to paint. Taking cues from 1990s style is one way to remedy that, and I'd also say that looking at Gary Chalk's artwork is a good inoculation against 'grim and dull'.

      I would love to see a discussion of painters past and present who really do have that individuality (such as Fraser Gray, who Asslessman mentioned in the comment above), as to be honest I'm not as well educated on this topic as I would like and would love to know who the great painters are that people are taking inspiration from.

      As long as it doesn't lead to people simply imitating a style, as that way boredom lies!

  4. A few that come to mind...

    Fraser Grey 80s-90s
    Andy Craig 80s-90s
    Mike McVey (of course - I do have a soft spot for the "Red Period" though...) 90s
    Matt Parkes 90s - present day
    Michael Immig (Admiral Benbow on LAF) 80s - present day
    Jakob Neilsen 90s - present day
    John Blanche - not of a time but for all time...

    There are many other personal inspirations mainly from the 90s but they would be subsets of the Mike McVey school in all likelihood. People such as Adrian Wink and Anthony Warrington are personal favourites.

    Others may be able to name more 80s names.

  5. This is a tricky subject to me comment upon. I pretty much judge every miniature on it's artistic and imaginative merit. I always have done.

    Technique is great, but as mentioned before. It is only a tool. And for every technique or style you have advocates and detractors.

    I have a close friend who's miniature work I absolutely love, people have criticised her work in the past as rough, messy and various other things. To which I reply those are exactly the reasons I love her painting style.

    She doesn't understand why I like her work so much, because I have a good grasp on painting techniques and a fairly clean style. But I say to her this is my point, some people like the way I paint, but sometimes I feel constrained by technique and wish for more freedom in the way I work, much like I see in hers.

    Because I can look at a painting in an an art gallery and praise it for the fine work and technique that created it. But I also love to see an artists working sketchbook, the life and energy that is caught there. The genesis of the finished piece and related/discarded ideas,

    Yes painting technique and styles have come a long way of the last couple of decades, but nothing can ever replace that creative spark, that imagination.

    I'm gonna quit there it's late and I'm rambling...

    I mainly dropped by to let you know that I've nominated you for a Liebster award over at my blog Meandering Shade.

    It's up to you whether you'd like to carry it on or not. No harm, no foul :)

  6. I like what you say about sketchbooks. That does raise another issue: whether we're so fixated on the finished product - the "Golden Demon" level miniature - that we don't take enough joy in the process of trying new things out. If you think of the minis as a particular canvas, you're going to feel that you need to get it RIGHT (whatever that means). But if you think of the minis as a sketchbook for your ideas, then I think you're more inclined to let your imagination loose on them.

    Thanks for the Liebster award - I have picked up a couple and if I have time I think I'll go through the various questions and do some deep soul searching! But as you can see the blog goes through long periods where I don't have the time to do anything with it. Thanks also for the link to your blog; I've added it to my blogroll.