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Borer's First Rule of Miniature Painting

I’ll preface this little ramble with the possibly self-evident caveat that this is Borer’s First Rule and all of this is my opinion. I hope this article is a useful or interesting read; but first and foremost, this is a rule for me. I think it can apply to a variety of people and topics, but I will concede that my would-be axiom likely applies better to painters than gamers, particularly competition painting and painters looking to participate in that sort of thing. If your primary hobby goal is to crush people so thoroughly in a game that they quit playing said game altogether, painting probably isn’t high on your list of priorities anyway.

I codified this little proverb years ago after the umpteenth person asked me what he should paint for some contest or other. My slightly glib, knee-jerk answer to this (and many other questions) is “it depends”. Don’t get me wrong. I like to talk about painting (a lot), but I can’t necessarily tell you what to paint, at least not without more information. So I typically follow my standard response with “what are you considering?” The person generally has a short list of several ideas and of those items there’s almost always one that goes something like “I’d really like to paint [a particular model], but I don’t think the judges will like it or its in-game stats are poor or…” at which point I usually interrupt him. As far as I’m concerned, you’ve just answered your own question. “I want to paint [whatever]” - great, you can stop right there because Borer’s First Rule of Miniature Painting is “Paint What You Want to Paint.

The emphasis in the sentence can (and perhaps should) be used on several different words; I think it explains and expands the rule nicely. Borer’s First Rule tells you to “paint what you want to paint” (subject selection), “paint what you want to paint” (not what other people think you should paint), and “paint what you want to paint” (not what you think you “should” paint).

In the years before I codified Borer’s First Rule, there used to be a shelf over my painting table littered with the detritus of projects that didn’t quite make it to completion. In most cases, I started them because I thought they’d be good in an army or the judges would like them in a competition. Unfortunately, we’ll never know because I lost interest and stopped, so they were uniformly incomplete and none had much hope of that ever changing.

I’m in the fortunate situation of being able to paint almost exclusively for my own amusement. I prefer to paint things to the best of my ability, and so I try to choose projects that I’m enthusiastic about. This is especially important for me because painting anything to the best of my ability takes me a shockingly long time. I effectively need to pick projects that I am highly enthused about simply to have a chance of seeing them through to the end.

What’s more, I firmly believe that a project you are enthusiastic about will come out better. That might be from a willingness to put more time/effort into it, more attention to detail, or more familiarity with the subject - I can’t say definitively - but I firmly believe that a hobbyist’s feelings about a project will show through. Projects that I really wanted to work on - ones that I liked from the start and worked hard on because I was inspired by the concept - always seem to come out better than projects I didn’t really have my heart in, and that’s assuming the latter were even finished.

It would be disingenuous for me to say personal entertainment was my only goal when painting. I don’t really consider myself a competitive person, but I can’t deny that I’ve participated in a lot of painting competitions over the years and have been very happy to have done well. Painting things to the absolute best of my ability is the type of painting I most enjoy and my sluggish painting speed really benefits from a deadline. I’ll certainly agree that competitions have been a big part of my painting focus over the years, but personal satisfaction with a project is more important to me now than competition success.

You can make educated guesses about what particular judges might like, research what has won in the past, and follow popular trends in the hobby, but your competition figure may still fail to make the cut. You can micro-analyze game stats, memorize rules, and calculate probabilities, but your new army may still fail to win an event. Win or lose, at the end of the day you’re going home having spent a significant amount of time that project. If your only goal were to win a contest or game and you didn’t, that defeat may be rather bitter. You may find yourself wishing you hadn’t spent the time in the first place. On the other hand, if you chose a project that you truly wanted to work on and applied it to a contest or tournament - regardless of what else those miniatures achieved or failed to achieve - I consider the time well spent.

Addendum: There’s a flip side of this coin; a danger inherent in Borer’s First Rule. “Painting what you want to paint” can become a justification for easy distraction and lack of focus. More than once I’ve found myself well into a project when some new idea piques my interest and before I know it, I’m assembling miniatures and dry-fitting conversion pieces with the previous project half-forgotten and pushed to the back of my work space. Part of that is certainly the fact that I’m easily distracted by shiny new projects, but I’ve certainly caught myself justifying my lack of focus with my own first rule.