Cheap is Not Enough! Painting Studio Study

Like the Joker said . . . “If you’re good at something, never do it for free.”

Hey, if it works for the Joker, it should work for miniature painting/commission services.

The trick is how to you determine if someone is indeed GOOD at something.  Good is such a speculative word.  Maybe what I look for in a miniature isn’t what you look for in a miniature.

Do you want style over detail, or detail over style?

Speed, or Price?  What is an acceptable amount of time to wait for your miniatures, and what should they cost?

Transparency?  IE, is it important to you to be updated every step of the way, or do you want to just see the final pics?

Quality?  Are you a perfectionist that need every barrel drilled, and every mold line scraped?  Do you need every belt painted, or can you be satisfied with a tabletop level paint job where not every detail is picked out?

On the note of ‘Tabletop painting’ how do we judge what makes up a tabletop paint job and and what makes a ‘Pro-Painting’ Service?  Is every service that charges a ‘pro-painting service’ or do we consider pro-painting to be a measure of quality and not services for hire?

These are the questions I set out to answer a few months ago.    And let me tell you, many of these services were found wanting.

 

To start, why do some of us even decide to become ‘pro-painters’ in the first place?  Is it love of the hobby?  Like all great enterprises, the beginnings of any business are always the same:  Can I make money at this.  In fact, it’s how I got into the business, more or less.

In the days before the release of the Tyranid Tyrannofex and Tervigon, I started building custom made miniatures to use as proxies until GW released the official kit.

So I built a few models.  “I can build a better one.”  I thought to myself.  So to fund it, I sold off the old models I had just built.  Then the thought hit me . .. . “Could I sell more of these?”  In fact, I could, and did!  For many years I sold custom made kit bashes. These weren’t official models, of course, but they were great proxies to use in the mean time.

But for much as I like building the real $$$ was in painting.  Painting used fewer resources.  Paint is cheap next to building models, and very low risk.  All I risk when I paint is time, and paint can always be stripped off.  Glue, sadly, is forever.

In short, I could make more painting.  So . . I started painting.  But who else was painted, I wondered.  How much do they charge?  So I started looking around for a business model to base my service off of.

At the time, all I could find was Blue Table.  Blue Table this, Blue Table that.  Well brother, let me tell you . . . they’re not the only game in town.  But considering how poorly most services advertise, you might think BTP is the only service around.

So for the past few months, I took a casual stroll around the internet, looking for every painting service I could find.  Studios, solo artists, blog artists, I didn’t discriminate.  In the end, I found over 50 services and I’m still adding to the list!

Part of the desire to do this was in response to an article posted on From the Warp last year.  Ron posted a good article about what you should look for in a miniature painting service.  He made good points about setting a budget, communicating with your artist, clarity, transparency, and expectations.

But his only advice for actually FINDING a painting service was akin to asking around or doing a search online.  And while I don’t agree with every point of his, I do think his heart was in the right place in that he wanted to give his two cents about the relationship that exists between and client and a commission artist.

This of course is something I have extensive experience with, both as a client and as an artist for hire.

My primary interest here was to see how my own service ranked up against our competitors, both in terms of quality, price, how connected we were to the community, etc.  Ranking certain things, like price, was easy.  An artist charges what they charge, period.  But in terms of style, that’s harder to gauge.

First off, let me explain our criteria for this study:

To make the study as neutral as possible, we asked each service to provide an estimate to assemble and paint the same squad of models:  a 10 man squad of Tactical Space Marines painted in the Ultramarine scheme.  In some cases, the studios clearly published their prices and we could price this on our own without contacting the studio directly.  However, in many cases quotes were on a case by case basis and required you to contact the studio directly.  So we drafted a letter (below) and sent it out.

Note that we did not identify ourselves as a competitive service as we preferred that the painting service think of us as a potential client so that they will give us as accurate a quote as possible.  Here is a copy of the letter we sent out:
Hello:
I am comparing several miniature painting services for a potential project and I would be interested in you providing a quote for the following:
One Box of Game’s Workshop Tactical Marines, assembled and painted in the style of Ultramarines to a tabletop quality standard, with no conversion work on any sort. For the purpose of this quote, I am not worried about shipping/insurance. Also, if you could show a basic breakdown of the quote, such as painting fee, assembly fee, cost of the unit box, etc, it would be very helpful.
If you are currently accepting commissions and would be able to provide us with an estimate for the above, we would greatly appreciate it.
Yours truly,
Caleb
Based on those responses we have created a ranking system for miniature painting services. We have rated their services in three separate areas: Tier, Quality, and Price.
The Tier System is an overall way to gauge the professionalism of the studio, including number of staff, level of activity, and what they contribute to the community. It is not a reflection of the quality of their work or their rates.
Quality is a measurement of the studios overall artistic endeavor. Quality is the most subjective of these three ranking methods, and as such it should be taken lightly. What we LOVE someone else might just like. We have attempted to be as neutral and objective as possible in our rankings.
Price is just that: how expensive is their service when compared to other services.
We have also provided an abbreviated list of services provided by the studio, including painting, assembly, terrain making, battle reports, etc. It is by no means a complete list.
Our ranking method is broken down into more detail, below:
The Tier System (Ranked I-V with I being the highest level attained)
To create what we felt like was a fair criteria to gauge a painting studio, we assigned five criteria, which are:
Studio Size: To qualify as a studio, there must be more than one artist (painter, sculptor, or conversion artist) that makes regular contributions. This isn’t to say there is anything wrong with being a solo artist, but for our purposes, we consider a studio to be more than one individual.
Longevity: How long has the studio been in business. 1Yr or more to qualify
Social Media Presence: Must be active on at least two or more social platforms, such as Facebook, Youtube, Flickr, Pinterest, Tumblr, Twitter, etc.  If we were unable to easily find these, we assumed they did not exist.
Active Updates: Must be providing updates on a regular basis, at least monthly
Mentors/Paragons: The studio gives back to the community in some form of tutorials, charities, prize support, reviews, tips and tricks, etc. Workshop’s, generally paid, do not count for this purpose.
A studio scores 1 point for each criteria they fulfill. Thus, a studio that meets all five criteria will move up the rungs from lowest tier (5) to the highest tier (1), and be classified as a Tier 1 studio.
Also note that the Tier system has NOTHING TO DO with painting rates or quality. We measure both of these separately. We feel painting quality is highly subjective, and rates will vary from studio to studio.
Quality (Measured with Stars, five stars being the highest quality)
Although quality is highly subjective, we feel that good technique and aesthetic choice can be assessed in a quantitative way, (ie, I can look at an artists work and have a basic grasp for their craftsmanship, just like I can look at a Van Gogh and compare it to the work of a college art major and compare/contrast the level of work).  To give you an idea of what we feel these stars represent, here is an indicative summary of these levels:
*: New to the hobby and inexperienced; rudimentary painting skills.
**: A veteran painter with at least a few hundred miniatures under their belt. They are exploring new techniques and still in the process of refining their craft.
***: Pro Painters. Good at what they do. The Forge World Team, for example.
****: Masters of their craft. They make it look easy. Painting is their Kung-Fu.
*****: Eavy’ Metal quality, Golden Daemon Winner, life-like quality miniatures.
Price ($ being the cheapest and $$$$$ being the most expensive)
To create a even playing field (a median), we will use a box of Games Workshop Tactical Space Marines (10 models, retail value $37.25) as our constant,, assembled and painted to a tabletop standard (as determined by the painting services themselves) or, if they call it something else, then the standard that is as close as we can gauge to a tabletop standard. By ‘tabletop standard’ we mean: three color down minimum, with some combination of shading/highlight/washing to create contrast. Price does not take into account but not the purchase price of the miniatures themselves. Thus, if a studio charges $50 to paint and assemble a box of marines, we would consider them a one $ studio, or about as cheap as they come.
Note that some services do not HAVE  painting level.  They just paint to one standard.  In that case, we used that level of painting and price it out accordingly.  For example, Daith’s Forge charges $90 a miniature, but he made it clear that he only paints competitively.  So send him your lords, not your grunts.
$: Less than $50
$$: $51-100
$$$: $101-150
$$$$: $151-200
$$$$$: +$200
Services and Accolades:
This key provides a summary of the various services (and awards) that have help to distinguish these painting services from their competition. This is by no means a complete list and not necessarily up to date (for example if a painting service adds a Podcast after we ranked them, or if they dabble in mold making from time to time we may still not consider them a mold making/casting service).
P=Painting
A=Assembly
C=Conversion, frequently transfigures models
Ch=Donates to Charity
S=Sculpting (original)
S$= Shop/Store on their site
M=Mold making/Casting (ie, produces own miniatures)
C$=Consignment services
T=Trade in program
Tr=Terrain making
TO=Tournament or Con organizer
D=Display boards
Di=Dioramas/narrative pieces
Po=Podcast
Pz=Offers Prize Support/Contests/Giveaways
Tu=Tutorials, how to videos or blog posts
B=Battle reports
GD=Golden Daemon winner or finalist
W= Workshop’s offered
F=Forum
AND NOW, FINALLY, THE MOMENT YOU’VE ALL BEEN WAITING FOR, THE STUDIOS THEMSELVES!
Name of Studio (alphabetized) Price Quality Tier* Services Provided
40K Showcase NA *** V P, A, C, S$, GD, No reply to commission request
Ballistic Skill 4 $$$$ **** V P, A, S$
Battleworthy Arts $$$ **** IV P, A, C, S
Black Dot Barrel Studios NA ** IV P, A, C, Tu, Not currently active (Ron occasionally takes long breaks from gaming)
Black Sun Art Studio NA ** V Not active since Sept 2012
Bloody Beast $$$$$ **** V P, A
Blue Table Painting $$$$ *** I P, A, C, C$, T, Tr, D, Di, Tu, B, S$
Brush and Bolter, The $$$ *** V P, A
Brush 4 Hire $$$ *** I P, A, Tu, C
Buy Painted/Wargaming Zone $$$ **** III P, A, Tu, S$ (paid subscription for tutorials)
Centerpiece Miniatures $$$$$ **** II P, A, Tu,
Corvus Miniatures $$$$$ **** V P, A, Tu
Crisp Mini $$ ** IV P, A
Daith’s Forge $$$$$ **** IV P, A, Does not paint a tabletop level
Dark Materials Miniatures $ ** IV P, A, C
Dead Marshes, The NA ** V P, A, not accepting commissions at this time
Den of Imagination $$$ *** I P, A, C, Tu, S$, S
Dodge Miniature Painting ??? *** IV P, A, Unable to reach re: commissions
Eclipse Painting ??? ** IV P, A,, Paints for 5 Euro’s per hour; clearly this site has not been updated in some time
Eclipse Studio $$ *** V P, A, No updates in over a year
Epic Duck Studios NA ** IV P, A, S$, Tu, not taking commissions
Figurkowo ??? **** V Unable to translate, but amazing work
Fourth Company Librarium $$ *** IV P, A, C
Full of Monkey Painting $$$ ** IV P, A, C, D, Tu
Front Line Gaming $$ ** III P, A, TO, B, Tr, S$
Goldfish of Justice $$ *** IV P, A, S$
Golem Painting Studios $$ ***** I P, A, C, W, GD, Ch, D, Di, Tr (they do a lot of painting for Mantic Miniatures)
Grey Matter Musings $$$ **** IV P, A, C,
Hortwerth $$$$$ ***** V P, A, C
Iron Dog Studios $$$$$ *** III P, A, C, S, M, Tr, Di, Tu, B, S$
JDID Painting $ *** III P, A, Tu, OUT OF BUSINESS JULY 2013
Kroothawk Painting $$$ *** II P, A, Tr, Bills out at $25.00 an hour, est. 4-5 hours for 10 man squad, build and painting
Markham Painting Studio $$ *** V P, A, GD, Di
Micro Art Studio $$$$$ *** I P, A, S, S$, M, Tr, Tu, F, resin bases included with quote price
Miniature Workshop, The $$$$$ **** V P, A, S$
OMITTED
MPG Miniatures NA *** IV P, A, S$, Unable tor reach re: commission
Musings of a Metal Mind ??? ** IV P, A, C (no response re: pricing)
Next Level Painting $$$$ *** IV P, A, C, W, min commission $1000
Nuke Arts $$$?
NA
**** IV No updates in over a year, No response re: commission
Obsidian Painting $$$ *** IV P, A, C, Tu
Raven’s Nest Painting $$ ** IV P, A
Reanimate Studios $$ ** V P, A, C
Rumplemaster NA *** IV P, A, Not taking commissions at this time
Smells Like Wargaming $$ *** II P, A, Tu
Stiff Neck Studio $$$$$ **** III P, A, C, Ch, Pz, GD, offers free resin bases
Tarvick, The Artisan $$ *** II P, A, Tu
Third Fate Creations ???? ***** V Will only paint vehicles, MC’s, or larger. Airbrush only service, but AMAZING work
Waaagh Studios, The $$$ ** II P, A, C, S$, Tu
Wargaming Zone/Buy Painted $$$ **** III P, A, Tu, S$ (paid subscription for tutorials)
Warp Forged Miniatures $$ *** IV P, A, C, S, T, Tr, S$, Pz, great original sculpts
White Metal Games $$ ** II P, A, C$, Tr, D, Di, Tu, B, S$, Po
Worthy Painting NA NA NA CLOSED June 2013
Zombies R Cool Painting $$$$$ **** II P, A, C, Di, Tu
*If you are the owner of a studio listed above and you feel we have misrepresented you in some way (misquoted your prices, mislisted your services, or improperly gauged the quality of your work, etc.) pleasecontact us.. We would be happy to discuss the matter at your convenience.
?Unable to reach, unable to communicate with, no response to inquires, etc.
NA= Not applicable, not accepting commissions at this time

WHAT WE LEARNED FROM THIS STUDY:

Even a casual look at the above will detect a few common trends.

20% of painting services aren’t services at all, because you can’t pay them to paint models:
Many of the services, 12 of the 55 listed, were either closed or not accepting commissions, or wouldn’t respond to my email at all.  We all know that Worthy Painting closed a few months ago.  Nick only briefly discussed why WP was closing at the time of closure, and I got the impression that is was, simply, too much money going out (overhead, paying the painters, advertising, etc) and not enough $$$ coming in (not enough clients/armies/models to justify the above).

This might have been a sign that WP grew too quickly.  They had just leased a flat to act as a base of operations/game store.  Perhaps they bit off more than they could chew, or they thought the community would support their store more than it did.  Who’s to say.  Nick, if you read this and you want to give your two cents, email me.  I’d love to have a chat and maybe post an interview to the blog for all to see so we can hear the real story from the source.

Since most of these artists work out of their garage just to make a little extra $$$, its hard to say why some services close down.  Maybe life (they have kids, get married, get a promotion, etc), maybe they get burned out painting other peoples models, or maybe they just find the joy sapped out of them when they have to a paint a model they’ll never get to play with on a timetable for a client.

Most services priced priced amicably and competitively:
In general most services will paint and assemble your infantry troop for about $10 bucks.  Sometimes a few bucks more, sometimes less.  Where services vary wildly was in terms of painting vehicles, monstrous creatures, and characters, ie, high level of detail).

Some services include assembly in their cost matrix.  WMG does not, because we do occasionally get clients that want assembly only, ie, they paint their models themselves. And so we wanted a pricing structure in place for that.  However, if a service does provide assembly in the price, by all means, use it!

So that means, more than anything, that when it’s all said and done, you should hire a miniature painter because you like their work and you the services fits your budget.  Which is as it should be.

Quality painting, overall (some amazing for the price):
We were pleased to note that most services displayed quality miniatures.  This means that you aren’t simply paying your gamer buddy down the street to paint you models.  You are paying an actual PRO-PAINTER.  One with the talents to back up their claims of being a pro-painting service.  IE, you aren’t just saving time by hiring a commission painter.  You are actually getting a good value, since they frankly paint better than you do.

Not only do these painters WANT to get better at painting.  They have to!  Clients make unusual demands that force them outside of their comfort box.  They have to paint in bulk, on deadlines, sometimes filing very specific requests from clients.  In short, they have to make you happy, and that takes perseverance, patience, and professionalism.

Few to no discounts of any sort/no loyalty incentives: 
Not for volume, not for return clients, etc.  In short, there is rarely a reason to use the same service twice.  Most of the world uses some sort of incentive program, whether it be air miles, Camel bucks, bonus movie tickets for repeat clients, etc.  Why hasn’t the hobby industry learned from this example?  We did!  We now offer lots of discounts.

Global Marketplace:

We found nearly as many overseas painting services as American.  On the chart above we converted the prices to USD, however, these prices do not include tariffs for shipping overseas.

Newer Services/Less Renowned Services Charge Less:

For example, Dark Material Miniatures is in the process of growing his portfolio.  So because of that his rates are very good . . but likely won’t stay there forever.  Buy while you can!!!!  So if you can find a good painter before they are discovered or before they launch their site, hire them.

Few Minimum Orders:
With perhaps one or two exceptions, most services will paint anything from a single figure to an entire army.  This allows anyone to get a model commissioned, not just moneybags with big pockets and money to burn.

Shy Artists:
Most of the sites I visited had a contact us section, but they didn’t have much in the way of artist bio’s, contact info, etc.  In fact, I almost set up an entire project once and didn’t get the artist’s name . . . .they don’t have phone #’s listed, they don’t have pictures . . . how do I know they exist at all?  Artists should consider giving a brief blurb about themselves, so we know you are real and we get a sense of who you are as an artist.

Slower than Expected Turnaround:
Got a turnament next weekend?  Don’t expect to have your figs back in time if you sent them out a month or so ago.  Most services take 4-6 weeks to get a squad back to you, even though they’ll only spend a week or so working on them.  Armies can take months and months, and in a few cases, over a year.  Yikes.  A year to get an army back!  Ridiculous!

The reason for this varies painter to painter.  Some have familial obligations, or a primary job that keeps them busy during the day.  Many of them keep a few projects going at any one time, so you might have to get in line with the other clients in their que.

Another thing we almost never saw advertised was a rush order policy, because, of course, if I rush out your models then one of my other clients is getting shafted.  Unlike a company that just ships a product from an assembly line, minis have to be hand painted, so there’s only so much rushing that can be done.

Some services do have some lower grade levels of painting and ‘speed painting’ is sort of indicative of this.  IE, if I paint your models with less detail, then i can paint them faster.  So maybe that’s the closest thing to a rush order that’s out there.

Little to No Follow Up:
Since we weren’t planning to buy any of these marine squads, but were just using this as a pricing matrix, we didn’t bother with follow up emails.  In my experience, after you quote a price to a client, they will either buy or they won’t.  9/10 they won’t.  They were only contacting you to get an idea of a price and often times that price is too high.  Even low prices are too high for some potential clients.

Of the many services we contacted, only one bothered to follow up and try to wrangle our business despite our lack of reply.  One.  This is definitely an area we could improve upon as a hobby based community.  Remember, maybe your reply went to spam, or was lost and forgotten on their tablet or smart phone.  Follow up again.  It might be worth your time.

Playing with little toy men should be fun:
It is my opinion that they best painting services out there are the best not because they paint better, or charge less, but because clients live vicariously through the bat reps they post, and the shenanigans they get into.  If you watch youtube videos for content, maybe half of what is out there is useful.  But if you watch then for a good laugh, or to feel like one of the guys, then you are in the right place.

Remember, your getting paid to paint little toy men.  Have fun doing it, or no one is going to think you care at all.

Limited Cross Promotion:
Time and time again what we saw from the top quality services (according to our ranking system) was cross platform promotion.  They were on twitter, facebook, google +, deviant art, youtube, blogger . . . they used every tool at their disposal to get their message out.

Most of the services, however, only had one or two platforms, and of those some only updated them once or twice a year.  That to me screams disinterest.  Why am I going to give money to someone like that, if they don’t care about their business enough to update on a platform THEY signed up for?

What we could not determine for this experiment:

Turnaround:  Very few services list turnaround speed.  In some cases, I’ve hear of clients waiting almost a year to get models back.  Get a good idea of turnaround when you contact the painter.

Customer satisfaction:  Very few services have an area for client comments.  As such, how do I know if people liked working with you?  Considering adding a comments section to your website (we are currently in the process of doing this at WMG).


What we did not list on this chart:

Location, location, location: 
Although the $ gauge under the cost column corresponds to USD, some of these services are overseas.   This will make ordering from them a challenge.  If you ship them models to paint, a tarriff may be involved.  If they ship you models, you may have to wait for weeks for them to arrive, and sadly tracking for overseas packages is seriously wanting.  I’ve seen entire armies go missing overseas before . . . at least in the USA there’s a good chance you can track it down!

Areas Commission Painting services should consider revising on their site:

Easier to reach/clear contact info:  If I am new to your site, how hard is it to find your contact info.  There should be links all over the place to reach you.  Otherwise I might get bored and leave.

Prices clearly indicated/Levels clearly outlined:  I really got frustrated with the CONTACT ME idea to get a quote for services.  How can an client find any consistency with an artist if they price based on whim or fancy?  At least provide a few sample squadrons and their prices for each, so we have SOME idea what you charge.  Give me a ballpark so I don’t waste your or my time.

What we learned from this survey:
Firstly (and most importantly for our purposes) we learned that WMG is exactly where we need to be as a miniature painting service:  We are young, growing, and have plenty of room to improve.  We are not stagnant, but are constantly looking for ways to change the site to better fit the needs of our clients.  We maintain open communication with our clients, advertise on multiple platforms, there is clear transparency in our process, and our prices are VERY competitive.  We are priced for a service of our level of quality, and we offer options for clients of all budget ranges.

Secondly, we learned that Cheap is Not Enough.  Value is all about perception.  If you sell a cheap product, be prepared to be perceived as an inferior product.  If cheap were good enough, we’d have more business than we could handle.

Thirdly, the best services out there are the best for a reason:  They work hard, they promote, they turnaround armies quickly and they offer clients options.  They offer deals, promotions, giveways . ..  they feature tutorials, in short, they are a business.

Finally, and this is mostly my opinion, miniature painting services are by and large underpaid and it’s no wonder so few of them succeed.  I have a friend that charges $85 bucks an hour to fix your computer.  I pay a plumber or mechanic $75 bucks an hour to work on my house or my car.  So if a painter charges $20, $30, or even $50 bucks an hour, is it really that high?  Not really.

The problem isn’t the value. The problem is our favorite hobbies are just that . . hobbies.  They won’t keep uswarm at night, feed us or shelter us.  They’re just for fun.  And when it comes down to it, most of us don’t have a lot of $$$ left over at the end of the month to spend on a hobby, esp. to pay someone else to paint our minis up.

But remember . .  you’re paying for their time and their services.  You’re paying them so you  can just focus on playing.  If that’s worth it to you, then please, hire a miniature painter today.

Please remember this list is by no means complete, nor is it official.  It is simply our companies attempt to see where we stood against the competition.

How did we measure up?  Let us know what you think, and if we didn’t PUT OUR MINIS WHERE OUR MOUTH IS, tell us why.

Until then, happy wargaming,

Caleb, WMG

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