Meeting of Minds – Ben Porter
One of my core aims with The Giant Brain is to promote designers, creators and publishers in the UK gaming scene. This series of articles interviews various folks from across the UK tabletop gaming scene to get an insight into their games, their thoughts on current events in the industry and anything else that pops into my head. I hope you enjoy it.
A little disclaimer on this particular interview. I know Ben from the Unlucky Frog Gaming podcast, he has been a previous guest on the cast and we have played games together on several occasions.
The last couple of years have seen many people across the globe take stock of their situation, try out new careers, and generally change the way they live. Among those doing this was Ben Porter. Formerly of the Unlucky Frog podcast, Ben took his passion for miniature painting to the next stage during lockdown, becoming a professional miniature painter.
He started Ashenhold Art to accept commissions and show off his work. I’ve been a great admirer of his work and his work ethic and was delighted to have the opportunity to chat to him more about the path to becoming a professional miniature painter and a side of the hobby I don’t really know much about.
It’s been quite a while since we chatted. How have the last 3 years or so been for the Porters?
It’s been constant change for us! Our firstborn arrived shortly before everything kicked off here with COVID-19, and we moved house just as lockdown eased briefly that winter. Then, we welcomed our second child the following summer.
If you had told me in 2018 everything that was ahead of me, I wouldn’t have believed you.
The 2 years of lockdowns in the UK led to a lot of people making some life changes. For you that meant leaving the Unlucky Frog podcast and turning your attention to becoming a full time miniature painter. What led to that decision and can you tell us how you felt about it at the time with how you feel now?
Those were decisions made entirely of necessity. At the start of lockdown I suddenly found myself unable to work my regular job and my wife’s maternity leave had ended. Fortunately, she was able to work remotely and I took over primary caregiving duties for our son. We still needed to find another source of income.
So, the conundrum I was faced with was – “how can I make money but still be available at home for my baby son?” I had done a bit of army painting and – like a lot of other people at that time – found myself suddenly painting a lot more. My wife encouraged me to set up a page and everything snowballed from there. I was really fortunate in that I landed a couple of referrals right out the gate and things have just grown from there.
I had previously been of the persuasion that I really wanted to keep my painting et cetera as a hobby. The idea of making something that gave me catharsis a job didn’t really appeal. But it’s been great. There are challenges just like with any job, but it really is a blessing getting to work in an area that I’m passionate about.
Could you give us an idea of what the ‘day-to-day’ experience of being a professional miniature painter is like?
I don’t think it differs very much from the day-to-day of any other job, but maybe I’m a bit blind to that now. Like a lot of jobs in 2022, you do have to wear quite a few different hats in addition to the “core role” of actual miniature painting.
The bulk of my time is still spent painting models, but admin and social media are as much a factor as they are with most other jobs nowadays. Taking time for developing my skills as a painter – research, private tuition, etc – is an important part of the job. And then I also need to paint pieces I can take to events, shows and enter into competitions.
It can involve long hours, but so can running any small business. It definitely helps that I am passionate about what I do.
The world of professional miniature painting always seems like a very crowded field to me. How do you go about standing out from other painters?
I suppose it is a bit crowded. The biggest reason for that is obviously because there is no barrier to entry. As long as you’ve got paint, brushes and access to the internet you’re good to go. It’s like being an influencer of just about any description; there are really no qualifiers beyond how you’re perceived.
Whether or not you’re successful at it, however, is another question entirely. And then there is also the relativity of success. For one guy it might be a side hustle to get them some pocket money to pay for their next purchase, whilst others are painting to put bread on the table and doing it full time.
As far as standing out goes, being good at whatever you do always helps. But bringing something unique – or at least different – to the table is key. I guess you would call that “having your own style.”
How would you define your own personal style? Which miniature painters inspired you in your journey to taking your hobby to a professional level?
Man, I really teed that one up for you, didn’t I?
That’s a really good question, and very difficult to answer without sounding pretentious or self-aggrandising. But I’m going to try.
I do feel – and I imagine a lot of painters are probably the same – that my style is still developing and evolving in many ways. I think this is the sort of thing that a lot of us painters can be a bit blind to since we’re so immersed in what we do; I certainly don’t very often sit at my desk and think to myself “I’m going to paint this in X style”, though that can be quite an interesting exercise at times.
A lot of style is really informed by personal preference. Colours you find yourself reaching for often eventually form your own sort of palette. That – coupled with preferred techniques – is really what style is on a molecular level. I use a lot of desaturated earthy tones in my painting with splashes of saturation. I also like to incorporate a lot of texture.
As far as miniature painters that have inspired me, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my personal mentor Mr Tommie Soule (AKA The Miniature Painting Tutor). He’s an exceptional painter who has managed to remain relevant throughout decades of stylistic change. Tommie has massively influenced how I think about my craft – right down to the molecular level – and is just as ready to encourage and praise as he is to criticise. I’m really fond of him.
Of course, there are loads of painters I admire from afar. But Angelo di Chello is one of the first painters I remember coming across a miniature he’d painted and thinking to myself “Damn, I wish I could do that.” There are lots of incredible artists out there, but Angelo’s work seems to just get seared into my brain. His Gaunt Summoner is probably one of my favourite pieces. The fact that he does the most incredible true metallic metals in a world where everyone is obsessed with non-metallic metals is something that really chimes with me, too. Whenever anyone says things like “non-metallic metal takes more skill” or “non-metallic metal just looks better”, I challenge them to look at Angelo di Chello’s work. He’s one of those artists that defy a lot of what people hold to be true.
Are there trends in miniature painting and design and if so what do you see as the current ones?
One of the big trends in painting at the moment is to have a backdrop on your miniature – a bit like the painted backgrounds that get used in film and TV – and have the miniature standing in the foreground. It’s something that I’ve yet to try myself, and I’m sure I will eventually, but I feel a bit weird about it. I think because it forces the perspective of the viewer a bit too much for me.
3D printing has come on massively in quality over the past few years and I think we’re seeing the beginning of a production revolution. It used to be you could spot a 3D print a mile away but the resolution is getting so good that a lot of the time it’s hard to see the layer lines.
You’ve had some collaborations with miniature companies. How have you found working with folk like Wyrd (Malifaux miniatures game)? Do you have any company you would love to collaborate with?
Wyrd were great to work with and I would work with them again in a heartbeat. I am led to believe that the feelings are mutual there. They’re a great bunch of people who are exceptionally passionate about miniatures, tabletop gaming and just about everything else geeky. I made some great friends doing those streams.
I have been on a bit of a Marvel kick lately and I’ve been getting a lot of positive feedback for those characters that I’ve painted, so Atomic Mass Games is high on my list of dream collaborations. Some brilliant minds working in that studio – both in art and game design.
Goblin King Games is one that really fascinates me, too. They’re a small company based in England that are producing some really impressive stuff. I’m a big fan of the dark, whimsical fairytale aesthetic.
What has been the biggest challenge in breaking into miniature painting?
I’m not sure if you mean for me personally, or generally, so I’ll do both.
Personally, trying to break into an industry in the middle of a pandemic – where we’re only now really beginning to see events return – was tough. Networking, meeting people, being able to let people see my work in the hand – that’s stuff I’m only now really getting to do. I feel I’ve really missed out on being able to meet and talk to like-minded people face-to-face.
Generally, I would say that the biggest challenge is really the double-edged sword that is the internet. There is an abundance of information and resources out there. For the most part that is a good thing, but it does also mean it can become overwhelming when you’re new. Truthfully, there is also a lot of stuff out there that just isn’t helpful or at least not conducive to improvement.
Are there any resources you found particularly helpful in taking the steps to becoming a professional miniature painter? Any advice you can give to folk reading this and thinking they might follow a similar path?
I do think the internet can hinder as much as it can help. My advice would be to get yourself some 1-to-1 tuition. There are some really good videos, PDFs, etc out there, but there is just no substitute for having somebody at your side who’s able to assess your strengths and weaknesses and tailor lessons and advice for you.
As for people looking to follow a similar path, I’d say one of the biggest things of all is to be careful about how you’re pricing yourself. I see a lot of people giving miniature painting commissions a go and they set their rates quite low because they maybe see it as a wee side hustle – they don’t see it as a job.
The problem with pricing yourself lowly is that it says that you don’t value your time enough. Worst of all is that low prices alter wider market expectations, which is ultimately harmful to every other painter. The race to the bottom is just bad news in general – don’t do it!
What is your favourite miniature game and why?
At the moment I’m almost exclusively playing Marvel Crisis Protocol. Just about everyone has at least a couple of Marvel characters that they’re fond of for a start, the miniatures are fantastic, and it has one of the slickest rulesets of any miniatures game that I’ve played.
For me, a good miniatures game should be fairly easy to learn with a lot of depth to it. Lower model count is also a factor for me, personally. I find myself gravitating almost exclusively to skirmish style games over mass battle games at the moment.