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Tuesday 11 August 2020

Differing Visual Aesthetics in Wargaming

 There I was varnishing  some refurbished old lead dudes and a thought came to me- well it happens once in a while -  and this  singular occurrence prompted another thought. Wow two thoughts joined together I'll be doing stream of consciousness next ! But no, I am not James Joyce nor was meant to be, the thoughts were in fact idle musing upon the Visual Aesthetics of wargaming and how much they have changed and morphed over the years and equally how much my own views and attitudes to the visual side of the hobby have changed .

 Now to be accurate I have always viewed "the look of the thing" as somewhat more important than the actual dice rolling.

 After all, if this was not so, then I would not bother with the model soldiers in the first place but would stick to screens or little bits of cardboard. I am aware that this is heresy to some who view the actual game play as the epitome of their hobby. Fine. No problem, enjoy yourselves, that is the point do not involve yourselves in the rest of our hobby  there is no need you can get your  painted armies delivered  to your door and begin fondling your numbered  cubes over the table almost immediately.

 Now I am not(well not much) having a go at people who use painting services. I have done so myself. and, once in a while still do. There are some fine chaps providing these services. I have units painted by Steve Skinner, James Main, Darren Taylor and Jez at Shakespeare Studios to name but four and I have never been less than pleased with their work. There are of course other fine painting services out there who do sterling work to judge by the amount of gear I send to them repeatedly on customers behalf's.

Mind you, I have also  several times encountered painters who are complete pillocks and seem to spend half a lifetime telling you why they have not completed your order on time, or even started it yet, and the quoted "6 weeks" inevitably becomes 6 months or more. This is especially galling if you have been daft enough to pay them a deposit. I know of one customer who has been sorely tried by the fact that  for various reasons "Painter X" simply will not finish his commission and has half painted units scattered about like confetti... ten months and counting for some of them .As my Granddad  would have said "Sod that for a game of soldiers". Buying it done,  is not always the simple option.

 No hopefully this goes a bit deeper. The problem , for me at least,with buying your stuff  "ready to play"  means that if you are not careful you are buying someone else's view  of how YOUR collection should look  someone else's vision , someone else's aesthetic. Now if you are a games player you may not give a monkey's about this and that is all well and good for you. But not me. Being only a games player would be to deny  much of the interesting "other stuff" that makes up the idea of the "Compleat Wargamer" (to misquote Isaac Walton) and yes in some  very small way possibly a more complete, thoughtful and rounded human being- something that seems to be in shorter supply now than formerly, though mostly(only mostly) , in my experience, outwith  the wargaming hobby.
However, let us not be too precious about this, let us simply, for the sake of discussion, assume that you think the look of the thing has some importance for you . Okay so that is decided . Where do you go next?
Sikh Cavalry painted in the  "received style" of the 1990s. These by Dave Jarvis.
Indian Mutiny figures. Painted and based by me again in the 1990s received style.Though I always undercoat white or grey rather than the colour killing black.

Surely the next thing to do is to decide what kind of look you want for your collection and for your tables when you use that collection. Now when you go to shows or read a magazine or up to a point browse the zillions of wargaming sites on the internet the does seem to be a certain "received look" followed often seemingly by worshippers at the "Church of the Bloody Expensive Rulebook" and those who kneel to the altar of  the "eye candy" within said B.E.R. Now don't get me wrong, sometimes this is appropriate and even necessary but somehow these days I find all of these set ups looking very similar to each other so that you can barely tell one from another- especially when they have been bought and paid for rather than built by the owners fair hand. I've done a turn at "received look"myself, sometimes alone sometimes with   significant help (though never by simply buying it done) and sometimes still do,   but I have never been a slave to convention. After all the "received style" changes every so often as a new B.E.R. appears Indeed rather the opposite- "The Resistance Lives On" so to speak. I want something a little different something a little closer to unique. Not always, but sometimes when the mood takes me, I want out of the current wargaimng rut. 

The Need for Individuality.

This is one of the reasons why I have- for some games and periods, some of the time- reverted to older "retro" rules. They have a different feel to them . It is the same with "retro" figures they frequently have more individuality. They lack the tediousness of "perfection". With many of today's plastic(or indeed metal) perryclones you are hard put to tell one make from another, still less when all are painted in the "received look"- often with extra knuckles.  I like models and units with a little  style and a little individuality so,  in some cases, I mix makers in the same army or even in the same unit. The idea of having the same army based in the same way for the same rules as every other  chap has absolutely no appeal whatsoever. One of the advantages of older figures was that you could tell a Lamming from a Minifig from a Garrison from a Willie . Variety was the spice of my earlier armies.

Even within my own pretty modest collection I don't want all the armies or games  to look the same. Up to a point each period should have its own look . Sure. there will be similarities and sometimes even a bit of crossover- especially with scenery - but the idea is to create something  with a little individuality rather than another same old same old. In terms of the look of the thing this might sometimes mean a more "stripped back" and simplified terrain more consistent with the "retro" look of some of my armies.
An example of a somewhat more "stripped back" terrain style which seemed in keeping with the  retro feel of "Charge!. by Young and Lawford. 

So my "retro" ECW collection looks subtly different from my "modern" one even though they  have sometimes appeared on the same table for a bigger game.  Its the same for the retro and modern AWI groups too. Though for these , being smaller collections by far -are not quite stand alone yet, but once they are will be used for different style games. The "modern " set being used for rules such as British Grenadier and the "retro" set for Featherstone. Of course they can, at need, come together for larger games in either discipline where a "pure" look  for either is not needed during er... playtime . 

"Retro" E.C.W. painted in the style I used in the 1970s- though these days hopefully with more skill. Most of the figures in this unit are Les Higgins 30mm castings out of production since  the late 1970s.
More "Retro" E.C.W. This time mostly Hinchliffe Foremost- still available. Again painted in the shiny 1970s  style .

You may have gathered by now that the actual game play is the bit of this hobby I treat with the least seriousness. The reason is simple, the actual dice rolling is of no consequence. I don't do competition so I don't often care about such minor matters as win or lose. Win UNHISTORICALLY mind, now that is of some matter -at least to me but  in our group that is very difficult to achieve in Umpire controlled games where the Umpire knows his period and the rulebook is merely a toolbox  for him to select the bits he needs to run the game. No army lists no points systems simply a scenario and a narrative.

The more usual "look" this time a 15mm game our group did at the Durham show in 2019. Models Blue Moon Marlburians from Jim Mains collection

 My point here is that each wargamer should be free to choose his own "look". I have for instance "gone off" - for some periods the heavy terrain boards in the Marlburian game photos in favour of the more portable cloths and "assorted things to stuff under cloths" to make hills and dead ground. For some games that approach is simpler and more effective. I have -in this case- reverted to an earlier time. 

Another demo game at Durham- this time 15mm moderns. Those MDF boards do weigh a bit- but look good. 
A similar game using the same models but with a different look.  That "desert cloth" fits in a holdall rather than a van ! 

The choice as they say is yours ... discuss! 


  1. Basically, for me painting is all about getting the toys on the table, but, and it is a big but, I paint them to the best of my abilities, because I don't want to put a shoddy-looking army on the table. I have developed a style that suits me, which is simple; spray undercoat in a colour that will complement the finished figures, block in the main colours, do the detail bits, a bit of shading on things like cloaks and baggy fabric items, drybrushing to bring out texture and ink wash. Matt Varnish sprayjob.

    1. I had never used a painting service before I got into the business side of the hobby. I needed to build a "Company Collection for the display case back in the days when I did 26 shows a year. I do still occasionally use selected painters but not to the extent I used to indeed it has been a couple of years at least since I last used one. I know painters who I can trust and who do a good job with my having to sell a kidney to pay for a battalion then wait a year for it to arrive. I prefer to paint my own where I can . Of those figures actually owned by me only the Sikh cavalry in the first pic were not painted by me or at least heavily refurbished id they were "old lead dudes". first pic

  2. The visual esthetics of the gaming table is one of my pet peeves as well ... I feel the wargaming hobby is converging to a single dominant look which I call the "model railroad look" ;-)

    I think we need much more creativity in the hobby. E.g. there a niche for going to the glossy toy soldier look with toy like terrain. But we could even further. E..g. why not aim for a visual look inspired by the Bayeux Tapestry? Or isnpired by Egyptian Hieroglyphs? Or inspired by paintings made about the battles in the period?

    I know, easier said than done ;-)

    1. But by no means impossible. I have seen a couple of games in "black and white movie style" one a beautiful vampire game and the other a WW2 game. I know a chap who pianted his FPW troops in a deliberately"French Impressionist" style and I make a concious effort to ape Victorian genre paintings - not very well but the idea is there. Would love to see a Bayeux style game- possibly best done with flats perhaps?

    2. The slightly Cartoonish stylised Bayeux Tapestry or Hieroglyph inspired Egyptians would look splendid. Great idea.

    3. Thinking a little about a Bayeux style game perhaps old style Lamming would work well. His poses were from the Tapestry - especially the Horses.

  3. I agree Andy. As you know I just do my own thing, and use and abuse said BERs as I see fit. My toys. My way. And all shiney!

    1. Just as it should be Colin. Keep at it lad !

  4. I have not used a painting service, though that has usually been driven by finances and now is just a way of life. I have always wanted to do a nice paint job and in truth, my technique and care has probably got better over the years, no doubt stretched by what others do, but despite watching some of those tutorial videos, I seem to default back to a way that just works for me.

    I am not very keen on the 'very clean' look, so generally knock stuff back with a diluted wash and then add some highlights.

    The varnish has been a thing - always reaching for the matt varnish, instead I am currently 'playing' with satin - unable it seems to make the full journey to gloss!

    Having gone on about painting, my primary thing is actually to get units to the table, but I want them to look nice. I play a lot of boardgames, some with quite dense / heavy rules, so I want my figures to be doing something quite different, something a bit more joyous that also connects me to my Featherstone roots and so in that regard, solid short sensible rules and a 'homely' aesthetic that does no fear handling is the thing.

    1. Join us, Norm. Give in to the heady smell and shine of the Gloss Varnish. You know you want to! Next it will be the shiny pink cheek dots ...

  5. Interesting post Andy. I think there has always been a move in the hobby to have a common look. In the early days that was down to the fact that we all used oils and enamels and looked up to people like Doug Mason & Peter Gilder with a desire to emulate their styles. Today we have a wide choice of paints, finishes, dips, washes and glazes and an abundance of painting tutorials, masterclasses and books on "how to". As such it is probably inevitable that many migrate towards a common look/style. Having said that I would hope that those of us who paint our own all develop a little uniqueness in our styles. But one of the many good things about the hobby that there is room for us all, even if those of us who eread and understand our periods are feeling like an ever decreasing minority.

  6. I became disillusioned as a teenager by this unattainable "received look" or aesthetic in the early to mid 1980s when Miniature Wargames came out as a colour magazine with all the photographs of the Wargames Holiday Centre troops and terrain. Bought ready painted armies? How could I match any of this on pocket money and Airfix figures?
    When I returned to 'the hobby' late twenties / early thirties c. 2000 the perfection of the professionally painted figures in the colour magazines was even more evident, the magazines were even more dominated or restricted by the near total advertorial content, by certain expensive figure ranges and certain BER rulesets which had no appeal to me.
    Thankfully blogging has changed this commercial strangleneck.
    Just reading through the blogroll for starters on Ross McFarlanes Battle Game of The Month, there is thankfully room for all in the hobby and still a lot of rules tinkering and independent thought. There will never thankfully be one set of rules like there is for football. Rules?
    As a solo gamer I have no personal liking for or understanding of the £25+ BER colour rulebook. I spent 25 pence in the late Eighties buying my battered branch library copy of Featherstone's War Games 1962 with its simple rules to tinker with and its two page Close Wars appendix and that has done me well enough for the last thirty odd years. Best 25 pence ever spent? Possibly.
    Now I use 'mix and match' / 'make do and mend ' style whatever terrain suits the game and matches my usual shiny toy soldier gloss varnish or pound Store figure style.
    If there is a received look or aesthetic it's probably somewhere between H G Wells' Little Wars 1913, FE Perry's First Book of Wargaming and Donald Featherstone early Sixties. Twigs, stones, books under Felt Cloth or hex grids, bits of model railway buildings and backdrops. DIY. Happy Man of TIN!

  7. thanks for your input gentlemen all Yes I did aspire to a gilderesque look - up to a point "shinyloo" does that today. But I don't want every army with that look. Shiny tanks do not work ! and some periods imho do not suit shiny and sometimes a more cluttered terrain may be appropriate. The problem with the "received look" is that it leave little room for heretics in the world of the infomercial. I have never been able to take painting tutorials seriously ever since I watched a GW one where this dude kept telling you to shake the paint- complete with hand movements . As for the various books on miniature painting I have one bought in the 1990s written by Bill Horan all the others I have read are superfluous if you have a bit of knowledge about how paint and colour works. For me the current magazine/blog "received look" can become a dead hand of conformity if you are not careful . Buy THESE toys which you paint with THESE paints using THESE brushes- no thanks I'll do it my way after all I have picked up a few skills since 1970 - still picking some up too.

  8. I confess to an antipathy to being told what and how to do things, unless I have asked. Many/most of the popular painting and gaming styles across the years have not attracted me but I sometimes experiment with them just in case. Sometimes I even pick up a new trick. I have tried having different styles for different collections but without much success. They tend to end up in "my" hybrid style.

    As for the games, I willing admit to enjoying the mental challenge of trying to outthink, out fight and out manouevre the "enemy" in a fair and friendly manner but am not keen on systems that are too "gamey" or tied up in complex minutae. Tinkering, even midgame when called for, is quite acceptable when playing with the best sort of opponent.

    1. Yes I have and will still have a quick tinker in the middle of a game if such is called for