How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Unpainted

I recently discovered a kink in my brain. (Don’t worry, it’s not the sexy kind.) I’ve been into tabletop war games and miniature skirmish games for as long as I’ve known that they were a thing. Some of my earliest exposure to fantasy came, not through Lord of the Rings or Dungeons & Dragons, but diluted from them through Warhammer.

I’ve talked before about growing up poor, though, and when I was young I didn’t have the funds to really support a miniature gaming hobby (not that I didn’t try), so mostly I pored over source books and issues of White Dwarf, constructed army lists of miniatures I would never own, and dreamed.

I loved the models with their intricate paint jobs and I loved the dollhouse terrain. When I managed to scrape up the funds to acquire a model or two, I would try to paint them, because that’s what you were supposed to do. And, in the process, I would inevitably ruin them, because I hadn’t yet learned how to paint. That’s just part of the hobby, I gather, a stage everyone goes through.

Except that I never went through it. I hated painting, and because I hated it, I never practiced enough to learn the skillset needed to get better. For years, this, almost as much as a lack of adequate funds, curtailed my involvement in a hobby that I loved. Painting was so much a part of the field that if I was unwilling to do it, I was always going to be an outsider looking in, or so I thought.

Then I discovered that aforementioned kink in my brain. I was lucky enough to have a talented friend who actually enjoys painting minis and who was generous enough to paint my Hordes gatorman army for me – and they looked amazing. I was so happy. But it’s a laborious and time-consuming process, and he had his own models to paint, after all.

Then I got the Hellboy board game when it Kickstarted a few years back, and it came with just boatloads of minis. He and I were joking about him having to paint them all, and something clicked – while my brain instinctively told me that wargaming miniatures were supposed to be painted, it (equally instinctively) said that board game minis didn’t need to be.

This didn’t get a ton more interrogation until COVID struck and I began getting hardcore into dungeon crawl board games that I had denied myself previously. From there, it was a short and inevitable path to collecting some of the modern equivalents of those Warhammer miniatures I had spent so many hours daydreaming about as a youth.

And that’s where the click came. If the board game minis were allowed to sit in their boxes and drawers unpainted; if they still made me happy, just having them and pushing them around on tabletops and dungeon tiles, then why not the others, as well?

I found a sort of calm in assembling the push-fit models that came with Warhammer Underworlds and, from there, learned how to appreciate the act of gluing the more complicated kits together, even when that inevitably left me with glue all over my fingers.

But I still didn’t want to paint. And I didn’t have to. Nor did I have to push the obligation over onto Jay. In fact, there was no obligation. If the minis made me happy unpainted, then unpainted they could stay. I wasn’t somehow unworthy of them because I was fundamentally uninterested in an aspect of the hobby so central to the enjoyment of so many.

Lest I be misunderstood, this is not a rallying cry for the end of painting. For many – even most – of the people invested in the hobby, painting is a big part of the joy that it brings, as is fielding painted armies. And I love painted models. I love to see the work and care and personality that others have put into what is a genuine artform.

My good friend and sometime publisher Simon Berman runs the Brush Wielders Union, “a community of like-minded miniatures gamers dedicated to playing their games fully painted and supporting one another in their craft.” And that dedication and support are important and commendable and I love them for it.

Maybe someday, I’ll even discover that the bug has bitten me, and I will turn my attempts once more toward the brush and pigments. But if I never do, then I am not prohibited from the other joys that I derive from the hobby, and I can still bask in all my little idiot monsters and soldiers in their gray, plastic glory.

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