Painting a Picture of Mental Health

This post originally published on thoughtbot's Giant Robots blog.

I paint. Whenever I tell people that, they understandably assume I mean on a canvas. I paint miniatures: small statuettes that are typically part of some tabletop wargame. I play the games too sometimes, but my passion is for the hobby.

Painting is sort of a general term. I also dabble in aspects of the miniature hobby: doing things like “converting” miniatures by changing them from what their sculptor intended by changing a pose or swapping body parts; “basing” them by giving them interesting surroundings that help bring the models to life by showing them running over rocks on a bridge or crouching behind a fallen pillar; and building terrain to make the battleground more interesting than a flat, wide-open field of green grass. There are less glamorous parts of the hobby like cleaning mould lines or picking the super glue out from under my fingernails after I assemble the bits. But I spend most of my hobby time painting. That’s good, because it’s the most exciting to me.

Painting is my hobby. It gives me an outlet from work that I find more satisfying than lying on the couch watching Netflix. It lets me step away from the technical and interpersonal demands of my job. It uses the creative, imaginative half of my brain that gets less exercise than the logical, analytical hemisphere. I can lose myself for hours getting the right wet-blended color gradient for a rippling cloak or finding the perfect transition between the shadows and highlights of a muscular arm. I’m pretty terrible at woodgrain, but I do that too.

Having a hobby is super important. People with hobbies are generally healthier. They’re also at a lower risk for depression and dementia. When I started painting, I had been depressed for a while. While my hobby hasn’t cured that, it does help me to forget for a while.

As all miniature painters soon learn, there are some super easy ways to take a flat and boring piece and give it vibrancy and visual interest. The first step of painting a model is to basecoat it. This is the step where you throw down the “base” color of each section. Paint a leather belt in a mid-brown. Stone can be grey. Cloth might be green or blue or red. This step can be tedious because it doesn’t take much skill and is time-consuming, but is important and you can pass the time listening to an audiobook or podcast or Netflix.

There’s no reason you couldn’t play a basecoated miniature in a game, but there are some tricks you can use to get a better looking model without much more work. It really makes all that time spent basecoating pay off.

<img src="/images/shading.png" alt="A Space Marine miniature from Warhammer 40k shaded using the "dip" method.">
You need the dark in order to show the light.

The first is shading. This is the process of darkening the colors in your model in the parts where light doesn’t shine as much. This “brightens” some areas by increasing their color value compared to the shaded areas. The simplest way to shade is to use a liberal amount of a pre-mixed wash over an area of a model. Textured areas work great for this. Chainmail? Throw black shade over the grey or metallic paint to show off the links. Hair? Use brown or even blue shade to add depth and character to the area.

While the paint dries on that, I’d like to talk about something more serious. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, one in four adults in America experiences mental illness. These can include anxiety, schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder, and others. Yet, approximately 60% of adults do not seek treatment.

Mental illness affects our work and personal lives. Serious mental illness costs America almost $200,000,000,000 in lost earnings per year. Next time you’re at work or in a coffee shop, I want you to look around the room. Statistically, one in four of the people you see are suffering from some sort of mental health issue.

And yet, there is a stigma around mental health issues. We are afraid that if we admit to being sick, others will judge us for it. We are afraid to seek treatment for it for fear that others will find out. And sometimes we even create false limits for ourselves because we are unsure we will be able to

I encourage you, if you feel that you may have some illness, to seek help. We should be able to feel comfortable going to friends or close coworkers to discuss things like this. Sometimes just talking some of these things out helps a lot. Then again, sometimes we need a little more help from a professional. We shouldn’t be afraid to do that either.

This is your bravery test.

If we are going to be able to trust our friends and coworkers, that means that we need to be willing to listen to each other when we say that we have something serious to say. I know it can be difficult, but sometimes not saying anything at all is the best way to help our friends.

How we interact with each other is important. We need to be sensitive to each other’s situations, cognizant that we may not know all there is about them. We need to be available and supportive of our friends and peers.

There are some much smarter people than me talking about this–people like Ed Finkler and Jen Akullian. You can find some of them on Mental Health Prompt.

And that’s the biggest way we can make a change. We can beat the stigma around mental health by talking about it more. The Mayo Clinic has more to say on overcoming this stigma.

Alright, let’s have a little fun.

Now that the wash has dried, you can move onto the simplest way to highlight an area: drybrushing. When applying paint, you usually want to add water to thin the paint. This prevents it from clogging small details and allows for a much smoother coat.

When you paint the walls of your house, you want to fill in tack and nail holes. On a miniature, a lot of details aren’t even that large. Thinning helps keep from losing those. With drybrushing, you break this rule.

Usually done with a brush with firmer bristles and without a point, drybrushing takes undiluted or only slightly diluted paint and applies it very lightly over an area. You can accomplish this by taking the lighter-colored paint onto the brush, then wiping most of it off onto a rag or the back of your hand.

A brush next to paper showing how the paint has been nearly wiped clean.

Once there’s almost no paint left, lightly run the brush over a textured area to leave paint mostly on the highest areas with the sharpest corners. These are the opposite of the deep areas the wash settled into, and they leave you with a cool progression of dark to light paint.

I’d learned about these painting techniques before I ever picked up a brush. I got into the hobby with a coworker as an excuse to spend more time with him and learn a new thing. We had spent about $100 each and were too afraid of making mistakes to start without watching a bunch of YouTube tutorials. The whole experience was a great way to cement a friendship. I never expected to fall in love with the hobby, to be writing blog posts, or even speaking about it.

Burnout is a form of psychological stress and vital exhaustion. It is recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a mental health disorder.

Burnout manifests as fatigue and lack of energy, demoralization, and increased irritability. The MacArthur Foundation suggests that it could be a result of resources for adapting to stress being broken down.

There is a common metaphor of a battery representing the certain amount of mental energy available to us each day for solving problems and adapting to situations. This comparison is also a useful model for burnout. We have a battery with a limited charge. We use this energy to dealing with the stresses presented by our work, writing code, and sitting at a computer. We all “recharge” in different ways. For many people it is effective to do something significantly different.

Burnout is more likely to affect people with Type A behavior patterns, according to the WHO’s International Statistical Classifications of Diseases. Characteristics of Type A personality include high ambition, desire for achievement, impatience, competitiveness, and a sense of urgency. Some or all of these traits are present in many of us, and I certainly recognize some of each of those in myself.

Doing something creative and challenging that has nothing to do with computers helps to break up the concepts of work and play.

All it takes is just a little change of perspective and you begin to see a whole new world.

Do you ever go home and still have some work problem churning in the back of your mind? I don’t know about you, but it’s not uncommon for me to untangle that sort of thing as soon as I stop thinking about it. Hobbies like painting are a great way to focus on one task and unconsciously work through other things. You wouldn’t believe how helpful it can be just to step away.

I know this advice is somewhat uncouth in a culture that pushes developers to always be ahead of the curve. It has been effective for me to increasing happiness as well as to preventing or even reversing professional burnout. A healthy work–life balance is, to me, far more important than always being familiar with the latest JavaScript framework. We’ve known this for a long time. In the 1880’s, organized labor groups petitioning for 8-hour work days used the slogan:

8 hours for work, 8 hours for sleep, 8 hours for what we will.
8 hours for work, 8 hours for sleep, 8 hours for what we will.

Hobbies are great for building relationships and for meeting new people. They usually involve some sort of accomplishment. With painting, I want to show off my achievement. Birdwatchers want to brag about the rare species they saw. Grease monkeys want to share the roar of the engine and the feeling of a smooth acceleration. Hobbies give introverts like me an excuse to talk to people we wouldn’t otherwise meet.

They’re also a great way to recharge. We all want to be around people (yeah, even us introverts). But we also need time alone. I can paint with others around or alone at home. I can paint at home then show off to my friends later. I can paint with others then take my masterpiece back and put it in my showcase.

Some hobbies even let us make money. Sites like Etsy are a great way to start selling custom leatherwork or knitting.

If you don’t have one already, consider starting a hobby. Write poetry; join an improv club; learn to work wood; even paint. It will give you time alone, an excuse to geek out with others, and accomplishments to share. It will help you meet new people, and to prevent burnout at work. If you’re very lucky, it will make you even happier.


It’s life. It’s interesting. It’s fun.

When I was young, my parents would watch Bob Ross on PBS sometimes. He always bored me back then.

In writing this post and preparing my talk, I watched a lot of The Joy of Painting. I really, really enjoyed listening to him narrate his episodes. He was a very happy, calming gentleman.

All of the quotes from this article are from Bob Ross.