Inside me, a year ago, there was darkness of a sorts. Winter in Glasgow is a miserable affair, and it is invasive. It seeps in through poor tenement windows and finds its way into your bones through your hands and feet as you go about your daily duties. In some respects being a student brings with it some preventative measures: the ability to stay in bed late and the company of others who are on similarly unusual time schedules. In also brings things that whittle away at your defences: deadlines, academic rigours, an absence of money in the holiday season.
For whatever reason, despite parts of my life filling me with hope for a good 2017, there was a gnawing feeling in the back of my head that something wasn’t right. I have since realised that I have been listening to that scraping and scratching for years, but didn’t know how to deal with it.
Most of my life, the typical crutch I would have leant on was videogames, with all their escapism and felicitous and numbing properties. For some reason, they didn’t quite do the job this time. The gnawing had left me inattentive, scatterbrained. It had crushed any sense of coherence and lucidity I was used to.
My only creative hobby, making videos on things I loved betrayed me and became an insurmountable fortress that mocked me for even attempting to assault it. Hours of video footage and pages of abandon scripts piled up on my hard drive and clogged up my mental space.
As with most people in the thrall of some kind of pernicious internal goblin, the first thing came to mind to improve things doubling down on things that brought joy, no matter how fleeting. But when stopped making sense, the second idea that bubbled up was: nostalgia.
The one game that had shone through the fog, was Total War: Warhammer. It’s a good game, but this is not a review. The vital component was the connection it forged to a much easier time, which is when I was a kid with little on my plate beyond GCSEs and collecting Games Workshop games like Warhammer 40,000. I rarely played because I didn’t have enough to play with, but I collected and read, and wrote, and immersed myself in a silly world full of nonsensical history, grimdark spacescapes and characters that were just the epitome of too much.
It got me thinking that the ultimate comfort blanket would be to get back into the Capital Letter Hobby. So, I had a look at what Games Workshop were doing these days. As of December 2016, they were going through a burgeoning renaissance, having killed off the Fantasy Setting Warhammer: Fantasy Battles in favour of a new, loosely organised but even more over the top version called Age of Sigmar, with rumblings that the sci-fi setting (40k) was due to undergo a similar change in 2017.
The first and most relevant information was visual: the models were amazing. Back as a child and a teen, their models progressed from clunky but evocative metal sculpts into primarily plastic kits that were easier to customise, but quite costly. I tapped out of GW due to the price, but also due to being a stupid teenager with a fear of social stigma.
Next, I saw that they finally had some form of community outreach: a blogging site, Facebook pages, a Twitch channel, and most importantly: a YouTube channel full of painting tutorials. WarhammerTV’s painting channel is likely their most brilliant move — as with much of their modern marketting ethos it is built around demystifying the hobby for newcomers, whilst ushering those same newcomers to GW branded materials.
Duncan Rhodes (the show’s primary host during that period) was an excellent painter, but also an excellent presenter. Clearly articulating GW’s preferred painting scheme (that tends to use no less than 3 individual paints or shades per colour required, for lots of cross-selling opportunities) and a knack for convincing anyone that they could become the next best miniature painter if they just followed his hints, tips, and tutorials.
So, post-Christmas, me and my endlessly supportive girlfriend made a plan to nip into GW, chose some kits and some paints, and try our hand at painting. It wasn’t the most expensive or awkward experience, and I’d been expecting much worse. Over the weeks following, I set to painting some Chaos Warriors, amusingly static sculpts that felt like relics of my teenage days.
Over the next few months, painting became an intense mental crutch for me. There was something incredibly therapeutic about zoning out to paint for hours after work, or Uni, or after a week where I felt adrift in my own mind. At first I started watching videos painting tutorials whilst following the general instructions. Soon after, I moved on to other painting videos, just to watch them, taking in tips here and there but mainly zoning out.
Later, I started watching lightweight TV shows like Brooklyn 99, and later still, podcasts like The Adventure Zone. Still, the focus was the brush, the paints, and the models. It sounds nonsensical, but there was a vague zen state achievable when painting went well, a sense of personal satisfaction I hadn’t had since an abandoned attempt to take guitar lessons seriously in one of the brief periods I had the time and money available to do that.
I’ve not read much into the psychology of the process, but I came across the Crate and Crowbar offshoot podcast, Miniatures Monthly, where the hosts Tom and Chris described the process of miniature painting as ‘creativity within the lines’. It removes the tough part of creativity, the part where you start from a blank canvas and actually create, but there is skill and consideration required to complete the illusion. It’s a sort of self-deception that, crucially, is very effective.
I struggle to be proud of things. I struggle to deal with the fact that I feel like my brain is betraying me daily, as I slip slowly into a sort of intellectual and creative torpor that I have to actively battle to escape from. Painting miniatures has become a catalyst for a slightly improved sense of self. There is no way I can overstate the ability that painting miniatures gives me to create something tangible that I am happy with, things that I can see growth and improvement in. I’ve even found a community thanks to Miniatures Monthly, where people share their painting, but also their time and their friendship over what is strangely cathartic hobby.
I have a whole gallery of images I have taken of models I have worked on, collecting everything I’ve done this year, from ugly Chaos Warriors, to futuristic, Ugly Chaos Warriors, as well as demons, dogs, airships and drones. The aesthetic of all the Warhammer ranges is, in essence: skulls, gribbles and extra. They’re not subtle, but they’re bold and they are now mine.
After Four years of University left me feeling unable to be satisfied with a piece of work, a year of creating videos left me feeling like I was chasing a dream that wasn’t for me, and a handful of articles that felt small time and inconvenient to editors (though I am indebted to them for indulging me), there was finally something that made sense.
I have no illusions that this is a career path, or a road to fame or infamy. I am happily painting by numbers, watching my progress incrementally restore whatever parts of my mind have been scratched out and gnawed away. I am happy to share these things, no matter how dumb people might think they are, whether they ignore them or like them. The represent physical process I can latch on to in a time where everything else feels fraught and frayed at the edges.
The mind is a box of tricks that are interlocked and interwoven in ways that obscure meaning from the person that holds them. I know I don’t suffer more than the average person , but when everything looks as black as it did twelve months ago, I know that I can pick up a brush, paint by metaphorical numbers, and focus part of me that knows I can still create, on some level, into something I can feel happy about.
Importantly, I know that the ability to be finished with something, to mentally check it off, is better for me than video games and TV are. There’s no endless world to escape to, no way to retreat from the encroaching responsibility presented to me by my lacklustre job situation. It is compartmentalised, and contained, and crucially, it brings me some level of contentment.
It’s absurd on many levels, and I embrace it.