The virtues of our hobby: Kaizen (steady progress)

One of the things I find most striking about this hobby is the constant drive I feel to improve, to learn and to grow. The Japanese phrase “Kaizen” was popularized in the 80’s, when manufacturing companies like Toyota used it to explain their success. In a nutshell, it means changing something for the better. In manufacturing this means constant, iterative changes that push the product forward.

The virtue of Kaizen.

2995852859_af3a324a11_bCompanies like IKEA exhibit Kaizen in a palpable way, either lowering the price of that BILLY book case even further or making little tweaks to the design or manufacturing to make it stronger, lighter, or more durable. They could just as easily NOT do that and it would still be a best seller. Hobby folks understand this need to keep improving, I think.

We’re never really satisfied to do something just as well as we did it a few years ago.

Personally, I like to keep old painted models around just to remind myself of my progress over the years. I know a lot of other folks do the same.

So, let’s chat about how our hobby encourages and rewards our progress.

I’m not going to settle for work that’s just ‘good enough.’

TRY HARDERI think we all understand this mindset, right? My bar for ‘good enough’ is always rising. I’m never really content to just leave it at that and call it a day. Last year’s good enough is nothing like my current level, even though I DO have a limit. I know eventually I have to put a model down and move on, but I hope to learn a bit and paint the next one even better. I’m always looking for little ways to change things up, even something as small as “I know I like to paint the bolter magazine after the marine’s hand because I can cover up a little green paint slippage.” These things add up.

This drive, this push to keep getting better is something that I think draws people into the painting and modeling hobby, and keeps us hooked. It becomes an unconscious thing after a while, but I never really stop trying to do something better or different. Ever.

On top of that, I think the hobby teaches us to apply this mindset to other areas of our life as well. For me it’s stuff like cooking macaroni and cheese, DIY home improvement, building relationships, working at my job, or whatever. The workplace buzzword a few years back was “best practices.”

Best practices is the idea that you could complete a task any number of ways, but some were inherently better or more efficient.

While we have to be careful not slip down the rabbit hole of micromanagement and perfectionism, I think the hobby enables us to work towards betterment without letting it destroy us or kill our mojo. It’s just something we do, but we don’t really freak out about it.

Zoomed images: Getting up close and personal.

I'm ready for my closeup.Looking at closeups of your own work can be very challenging. Most of us either love them or you hate them. On the one hand, they tend to exacerbate your weaknesses and showcase your flaws. On the other hand, they help you see what the naked eye cannot and keep you humble. Personally, I really love zooming way in on pics of painted models. My own and others. My fiancée coded this blog for me and she got so irritated with me because I kept making her tweak the image zoom options. You should be able to zoom and pan in my images like crazy, for better or for worse. Just don’t judge me.

The nice thing about having access to hi-def pics we can examine in humbling detail is that is keeps us accountable for our work. Posting pics on Twitter makes me feel like a rockstar. The image compression is fantastic, but it absolutely rounds out the edges and cleans up edge highlights like it’s made for it. If those were the only pics I ever posted, everyone would think I was a much better painter than I am in real life, and thusly, so would I. But, working with my own pics in Photoshop, I know this isn’t the case.

Now, I paint with magnifying lenses so I can get more accurate on-the-fly impressions of my work, because frankly it was annoying to see all the flaws later.

Geektom on Bolter and Chainsword once told me that we need to keep in mind “most people are seeing our models from 2 feet away, not 2 inches like we see them.” Now I think we need to tweak that to two millimeters, because our cameras can eat the distance with megapixel bites. It’s great advice, and it helps keep me sane and in control. Now, while it’s true that on the tabletop nobody notices the flaws, a cleaner paint job still looks noticeably cleaner at any distance. That said, I need to make sure I’m not making details like battle damage too subtle, or they’ll be lost at 2 feet.

The power of feedback and community.

life is better with friendsSpeaking of closeups; I think we’ve all seen the crazy closeups of models from the ‘Eavy Metal team and despaired. Maybe it’s just me, but that’s devastating to my painting self-esteem. The edge highlights are so smooth, you rationalize they must be simply Photoshopped into existence. It wasn’t until the internet really started showing us the work of average, even stellar painters up close, that I started feeling better about my skills. I think even GW picked up on this, and now the White Dwarf ‘Paint Splatter’ articles are finished to a much more attainable standard for beginners (and they’re the ones who need those articles the most).

In this day and age, the response rate and volume on our published work can be pretty staggering if you’re not prepared for it. I’ve found that the feedback, rather than limit my creativity, empowers me. I really love the idea that I can ask for some comments on, say, a pose for my Knight and I’ll get a bunch of well-reasoned responses before the next night. I try very, very hard to take all feedback in stride, negative included. Accounting for differences in taste is one thing, but what I found was that my circle of regular commenters keep me honest. I might publish a pic knowing something is a bit off or rough, and sure enough someone will mention it and I’ll go back and redo it or touch it up. It’s a good thing.

I’ve come to the point that I rely so much on feedback, I truly consider much of my work to be a community project.

My Queen Bee Knight is the best example of this, where I’ve made many tweaks and edits based on some really great responses and criticisms across this blog, Twitter, and Bolter and Chainsword. She’s not just my Knight, she belongs to the B&C and the #warmongers on Twitter.

The other important point about feedback is that, while I’m working, I’m often thinking about what people will suggest and comment, to the point where I’m editing my work based on anticipated reactions. Again, this isn’t limiting to me, it simply situates me within a really strong network that I want to contribute to. Everyone who runs a blog wants feedback, but not all of us just want a bunch of praise all the time. Sure it feels good, but that doesn’t always help us grow and learn.

Kaizen revisited.

So, after all that, I think the concept of constant, iterative change for the better is a core of the hobby for me. What do you think? Do you know some folks who have been painted in the same way for years? What keeps them going? Is it just to get the pieces ready for a tournament? How about you? What do you do to learn and grow over time?