Where’s your mojo?

Painting Persian cavalry
Painting Persian cavalry

Most wargamers go through phases where they lose touch with their inspiration. “Just why am I doing this?” they ask themselves. Sometimes, the answer comes back loud and clear, they shrug off the doubts and on they go. At other times, it’s more difficult, like a bout of writer’s block, and they become consumed with self-doubt, or effectively ‘fall out of love’ with their hobby. This can lead to someone stepping away from the hobby for a while – or even, as I’ve seen happen, permanently.

Some even take up railway modelling. Sheesh.

More common still is where a hobbyist suffers a cooling of enthusiasm for one or more aspects of the hobby. Perhaps they grow tired of the effort of fighting big battles, and turn instead to the quick thrill of skirmish games. Or maybe they can’t stand the bickering of the historical button-counters, and seek comfort in the arms of fantasy or sci-fi or even the realm of the imagi-nation.

But perhaps the most common cause of a wargamer taking a hiatus is the requirement to paint miniatures.

One of the sine qua nons of wargaming for the vast majority of us is that we buy unpainted castings and then set about painting them ourselves. A fortunate few with funds to spare invest sizeable sums in the skills of professional painting services, whether at home or overseas. Still others bid for painted armies on eBay, or visit shows where they might be lucky enough to pick up a bargain at the Bring & Buy, though it has to be said that both eBay and other pre-owned armies can yield variable quality: if you’re lucky, you might find yourself in possession of the work of a decent brushman; more often, the results are decidedly average or below, but if all you want is to get painted minis on the table, then the quality might not matter.

One of my perennial problems is that I want to paint my own armies, but I generally like big battles with lots of miniatures, and this increasingly conflicts with the reality that I have precious little time for my hobby at all, let alone having to paint and base the little blighters before I can play with them! It’s a curse: I was brought up to believe that an army isn’t really mine unless I’ve actually clothed the miniature soldiers. Moreover, I have a certain standard below which I am not prepared to fall. Even my well-known Spencer Smiths need to be dressed adequately – I just can’t bring myself to do a ‘bish bosh’ job on them, and even end up carving and filing to improve the quality of the castings before any paint goes on. The regiments may be fictitious, but I want the uniforms I’ve designed to look just as spanking on the table as any historically-clad force.

The other problem that many of us have is the “ooh, shiny!” syndrome, as a result of which we acquire far too many miniatures, too quickly, as if stockpiling unpainted lead is somehow an investment for the future. We end up with boxes – nay, cupboards – full of naked lead and plastic, awaiting that starry night when, miraculously, time stands still and we whip out brushes and paint and catch up with all the painting we have been meaning to do for weeks, err, no, months… Okay, I admit it: years. It just ain’t gonna happen, is it?

The best way to tackle the problem is not, as I have learned, to attempt ‘binge painting’. With the best will in the world, it just doesn’t get the job done. If I had a pound for every time I’ve fondly imagined that I would dedicate a week’s holiday, an entire weekend, or even, nowadays, just a full afternoon to addressing the problem without interruption… Well, I’d certainly have a few quid.

No, from what I’ve seen of the wargamers who have actually managed to amass sizeable, completely painted forces, the trick is habit. An hour a day before going to work, or an hour in the evening before bed – even whilst watching the TV. Even making the effort to schedule a couple of hours every Sunday is better than the half-promises I’ve lived with for quite some time now.

The thing is that whilst I actually enjoy painting, and certainly enjoy the results, I have conflicting creative pressures. My number one priority is obviously the magazine, which must go to press on time, month in, month out. Whilst the deadlines are regular, the workload is not routine – every issue is different, some issues requiring more editorial and/or design input than others. Whilst enjoyable and rewarding as a challenge, it’s a routine-wrecker! And obviously, I can never predict how much interaction there might be with contributors and readers. I get a LOT of emails and interact with people on social media as much as I can, all of which eats time.

And as you know, as well as the magazine, I have ambitions to be a writer: Pen & Sword are queueing up projects for me to finish, and I am foolishly trying to write fiction as well. And despite me having slashed the number of blogs I maintain from far too many to just a couple, they are still beasts that need to be fed.

So, today I decided to try two things. First of all, to try and jump-start my painting mojo with something relatively simple and small in scope; and secondly to make a promise to myself to work on it for 30-60 minutes a day, at least five days a week. Then I can assess how things are going, and measure progress by simply watching the shiny white metal disappearing under layers of paint!

The project is the latest thing I’m approaching with my old pal Guy Hancock: early WWII Blitzkrieg in France and the Low Countries, using GHQ 1/285 micro-armour and Battlegroup Blitzkrieg from Iron Fist Publishing,though I’m sure we’ll also experiment with other rulesets such as Blitzkrieg Commander and Chain of Command. You may sense my relief because rather than experience the humiliation of the British & Commonwealth forces as I have done in our Western Desert battles, I’m playing the Germans in this gig, and looking forward to enjoying the benefits of superior command and control!

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And so, a few piccies here of some black blobs, which are actually delightful GHQ castings under a bit of cheap acrylic undercoat. I’m then going to be using Vallejo colours, some of which I acquired in review packs from PSC when they brought out their own range of colour packs last year. I’ll be keeping it as simple as possible, with a base coat and highlight, with a few details – I may try out some 1/300 decals (if there are any! Dom’s?) for the standard Balkenkreuz. I am also the proud owner of an ‘optivisor’ thing bought on eBay for a few quid, which should give my poor eyes some relief.

So, here’s hoping that this little project helps me to rekindle my mojo after far too long a break.

My painting notes book
My painting notes book

Finally, I’ve included a couple of pics of one of my painting notebooks. Do you keep a record of the paints and techniques you use? Given how long it can be between painting sessions, I find it invaluable, as I couldn’t possibly remember the nuances of colour mixes or dilution without it. I have this one, which is a pretty random mixture of projects, and then others which are for specific, big projects, such as my imagi-nations Wars of the Faltenian Succession, Peninsular War and now ACW.

Typical painting notes – these are for my Zulu Wars collection
Typical painting notes – these are for my Zulu Wars collection

I’ll keep you posted on progress; it will be interesting to see how quickly I can knock out a decent little Panzer force. I wonder how Guy is getting on with his French…?

And oh, by the way, I fully intend to finish all those 1/72 plastic Persian cavalry that you saw at the top!


  1. Henry, as you might have picked up from my blog, I only dabble with small projects these days – creating whole units, let alone whole armies, is quite beyond my level of motivation. My own fond hope for the future is that somehow technology will give us cheap pre-painted (or should I say pre-coloured) miniatures to buy. Then we can get on with organising, researching and playing.

    Good luck with your routine!

    • Hi Keith, thanks for stopping by.

      I hear what you say about pre-coloured miniatures (and maybe we’ll be producing them at home with our desktop 3D printers). It just goes to show what a broad church the hobby is, with some people putting painting at the top of the list of things they love to do, whilst for others it’s a nightmare. I think I’m somewhere in the middle: I like to paint my own miniatures and build up pretty armies, but I’m also aching to get on with the game. If my wallet were fat enough, I’d certainly consider painting services at this stage, but the fee for doing MWBG just doesn’t stretch that far!

      Wishing you every success with “Honours of War”, which I hope to give a go at some point.

  2. Getting stuff painted is at least half the battle for me too. I try to keep a couple of project’s ‘on the go’ at all times so I can flit between projects as the fancy takes me. I try to do at least 15 to 30 minutes every day, whenever I get a spare moment…it helps that my paint desk is in the living room so I don’t have to be antisocial to work on my hobby. I have to say this approach isn’t working for me at the moment (so maybe it’s not such good advice after all!) but it has worked in the past.

    • Thanks for your comment, Lee. Sympathies – of course I know exactly what you mean, and even keeping to the a daily routine has proved impossible in the very first week for me! But I have now managed three painting sessions in five days, which is unheard of for me since… Well, I can’t actually remember. As in all things in life, we can look at these things as a glass half empty or half full, and I’m trying to make the mental switch to see it ass the latter: a victory that I’ve done this much, rather than frustration that I haven’t done more. Good luck with getting back your own mojo – but don’t beat yourself up about it. Another thing I’ve realised is that I’m *hugely* self-critical, and sometimes just need to give myself a break.

  3. Sympathise completely. Normally it’s a choice between going online or painting, however, recently work and the kids have left me so knackered that it’s been neither. To make matters worse I’ve just taken delivery of another 100 minis that I want to field in the next week…no chance!

  4. If ever I lose my painting mojo then rather trying to fight it I will do something else which is still mostly allied to the period I am painting for.So I will make some terrain, or do some research or even write an article or two and slowly, the urge to put paint onto metal returns. After all, I know it will return as I’ve been there quite a few times over my 45+ years of wargaming.
    On the other side of the coin, I have ‘whirling dervish’ painting periods where I will paint and paint and paint until I a) run out of figures for that period, or b) the ‘oh, shiny’ creeps in or c) exhaustion takes over.
    I know that you have a schedule that is probably busier than most so I would try painting for a short while each day and use it as a wind-down technique rather than a possible chore. Definitely cut down the number you paint at the same time.Depending on the scale I will paint no more than 6 x 28mm, 15 x 15mm or 40 x 6mm figures at a time because all that painting and no visible end in the immediate future can be soul destroying. Seeing a small group of figures painted and based is an inspiration in itself.

  5. hi Henry, some great words of advice here.
    I’m very lucky to work from home and have space for a painting desk that I leave setup at all times, this means I can grab 10 mins here and there during the day to paint, its amazing what you can do in a short time.
    other tips I have are:-
    1) don’t work on 1 thing, multitask, try and split your time, painting, basing, undercoating and preparing minis, if you only have a few minutes then clean up some minis ready to undercoat, or put a wash on something you basecoated the other day, try and spend your time doing stuff instead of waiting for paint to dry.
    2) don’t fill your painting area with too much, I never have more then 10 figures on my desk at any one time, other minis are set aside and brought to the desk when I want to work on them.
    3) if you get fed up painting the same thing, put it to one side and pick up a different miniature and paint that, its amazing how nice it is to paint something different when you get to your 100th Napoleonic infantry figure.
    4) make notes (as you suggest)
    5) base figures as you finish painting them (again make notes on how you base an army) there is nothing better then basing a figure once you’ve finished painting it , then take a picture and post it on twitter or facebook and tell people you’ve done something.
    6) enjoy your painting and remember why you are doing it, its meant to be relaxing not a chore
    7) plan a game once you have enough figures painted, if you are painting a large army which needs 100’s of minis, then play a skirmish game once you have 10 figures done, and play a larger skirmish game once you have 50 figs done, the more you use your figures the more you’ll be encoraged to carry on painting them
    8) try and set up a permenant space to work, you want somewhere you can lay out your paints with good lighting and clean water, then you can sit down and do something for a few mins. if you have to set up an area to work, find your paints and brushes etc. then you won’t do anything as its never worth it, if the desk is there you’ll use it

    all the best

    • Thanks Mike, some great advice in there – though as I just replied to Jon, in fact i have no excuse regarding the painting space, because up here in the Loftwaffe, other than those few occasions when dear Annie demands access to the wargames table to do some fabric cutting, it’s only my own mess and clutter that prevents me getting to the painting tray. It’s all the other demands on my time that leave me too tired to even contemplate painting – which is why I’m trying to literally reschedule my life to make it possible to create proper routines for all sorts of things, not just painting (health, writing, exercise, watercolours, spending time with friends etc…)

      Actually, one of the interesting points you make is about not tackling too many figures at once. I’ve always been very much a ‘production line’ painter, with dozens, sometimes over 100 minis (depending on scale) on the painting tray at any one time. I might just see how that would work out, dividing the troops into smaller batches. The multitasking is a good idea too.

      • oh I forgot to mention GHQ do some decals for their vehicles, I have some here and they are very good

          • Hi Henry, I think I got them direct from GHQ, I’ve found some spares so i’ll pop them in the post so you can have a play before you buy some

        • While I can relate fully to all of these wise words, I and the group I play regularly with have found a really simple way to remove all danger of the burden of painting damaging our enjoyment of gaming. Simply start playing with your figures while they are unpainted. Heresy? Maybe. I still enjoy painting my figures when I get the time but the fact that I get to have lots of fun with them (1 or 2 games a week) in the meantime means there is no danger of losing interest in that army before I finish them. Much as I love the spectacle of a well painted army, for me the gameplay is paramount. Just as I can enjoy chess with monotone pieces, so too with my wargames.

          • Shock! Horror! Probe! Scandal! 😀

            The difference with me is that I’m not getting the gaming time either, so they just stare at me from their boxes reproachfully… Ah, the days of getting units mixed up because they were all unpainted, following which I progressed to putting just a blob of paint or marker pen on the bases (how lazy is that?!) or even bits of Plasticene or sticky labels… The shame, the shame!

      • I’ll be submitting my request for more hobby time to die Fuhrer this very afternoon. I do hope that she has had a good time at her panel beating class!
        Thanks for the inspiration

  6. Why not link the painting to your blog? ie don’t post anything until you have painted something to put on the blog. That way your blog gives you inspiration to paint and doesn’t act as a distraction from painting.

    Another tip is to have a dedicated painting station that you can leave out – so no effort required to pick up a brush. If you have to start clearing space and digging out paints then it makes it much less likely you’ll do a short session.

    • Thanks for the tips, Jon. Two slight problems there – I’ve been struggling to maintain the blog AND the painting, so the danger might be that you’d never hear from me again! 😀

      However, in principle I agree, though in fact my painting trays are (almost) always accessible, so that’s no excuse. It’s a mind thing.

  7. Hi Henry,

    This is a real problem for me at the moment (and has been for around a year now) so your thoughts are very much appreciated. I agree entirely about doing something for even half an hour as being therapeutic (and I have tried this with very positive results) but at the moment I am struggling even to do this! HOWEVER – I think my mojo may be creeping back – if only because being such a fickle individual I can get easily inspired. Something has appeared on the radar which, in a small way, should help to ignite a degree of enthusiasm.

    All the best,


    • I hope it works out for you. Painting minis is like losing weight or trying to keep fit or any long-term commitment – we have to set interim goals, or the end goal will just seem much too far away. I have *thousands* of miniatures that need painting, so the only way I’m going to accomplish anything is by breaking that monumental task down into bit-size chunks: hence the detour into early WWII stuff, where I know I only have a few dozen things to paint. Once I’ve achieved that, I might do another short-term project, like getting some more cowboys or pirates sorted, after which I might feel ready to complete a regiment of my imagi-nations troops that has been sitting, half-painted, on my painting tray of ages. Step by step.

  8. Hi Henry, you say you are going to paint then highlight. Just a suggestion but have you thought of a black wash before the highlight? It definitely helps to bring out the detail, especially on the GHQ models.

    • Thanks Tamsin – you’ll see how I get on! Hats off to you for even thinking about painting in your current domestic crisis!

  9. So many truth, Henry. Sometimes I go for a couple of months without painting a single figure …then something happens! It may be a film, book or inspiration from a game at the club on a Sunday afternoon and then I paint like a man possessed.
    Being regular helps me get things done so getting up at 5.45 and painting for 45 minutes each day is a good start followed by an hour after work each evening. Like you I have a painting note book recording colours used and even the basing materials for particular armies.

  10. Well done Henry, you’ve hit the nail on the head nicely.. I think the key is as you say to get into a habit.. The problem is getting time to form the habit! I look forward to seeing your project as it unfolds.. It’s a period I game as well.. 🙂

    • Indeed, Steve, and I’m hoping you’ll send us more early war scenarios so that I can start playtesting them here at MWBGHQ!

  11. I’m not sure why I’m being asked about really small decals as I have no idea 🙂 Other than that everything in here makes sense! I was going to start a blog to try and force myself to paint (I don’t enjoy it) and ended up with a FB page instead. Which has helped

    • Great to hear from you Dom – and the call for tiny decals is entirely logical because we want them on our tanks but they’re a miniature nightmare to paint! I think it’s just the bigger stuff – crosses, stars and so on, and maybe some Soviet tank turret slogans – and for other periods, maybe some teeny weeny shield designs… 🙂 Also, I fully understand your decision to go with a FB page rather than a blog: as I’ve said in my column in the mag, you need to really question why you’re doing these things and whether they’re the best use of your time. I think – for now – I’ve settled on two blogs, three FB pages and three Twitter accounts! (Oh, and a bit of Pinterest in private…)

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