We’ve all got one. Even those of us who proudly, almost smugly proclaim to the contrary, we all have a grey tide somewhere. I can see some of you now shaking your heads and saying ‘not I, there’s nothing unpainted in my queue’ but I bet that if you dig deeper into those boxes, you’ll find that character you never got round to, a small unit that got set aside, or half of a starter set that received no attention from your brushes. And if you really, honestly don’t have one, you will do soon. Grey tides exist for all of us, but I’ve been thinking about why they exist, and what they say about us as hobbyists. In this article, I want to examine why we do this to ourselves, what these hordes of the unpainted represent, and whether there’s any hope for those of us who can’t help buying the latest box set even when we know it will be a long time before we ever paint it.
(Warning: This gets a little wordy – possibly my longest post ever, so make yourself a cup of tea, find somewhere comfortable to sit, and crack on)
Excuses, Excuses, Excuses
Between uttering them myself and hearing them from others, I must have witnessed all of the excuses that painters and gamers use for their grey tides. I won’t try and go through them all here, but perhaps I’ll pick out a few of the more common themes and a couple of really original ones. The most common perhaps is barely an excuse at all – it’s the ‘I’ll get round to it next’ defence. Sometimes, when someone buys something while they’re already mired in a time-consuming project, they really do mean that the freshly purchased piece of plastic crack will be next for undercoating, but despite these good intentions (and the road to Hell is paved with unpainted miniatures), they often fall by the wayside when a new shiny-shiny is released. It’s part of the ‘Magpie Syndrome’ that we all have – a need to just buy something, even when we can’t use it or give it the attention it deserves for days, weeks, months, and even years. But we must have it, and those who have proclaimed ‘I’ll get to it next’ are often the worst culprits with grey torrents swirling about their hobby spaces. In the days of weekly releases, you really have to be a quick painter to keep up with this approach.
Another common reason to build up such a tide is that sometimes we just need to buy something new. I’ve done this in the last week. Grinding through a long project, sometimes we just need to pick up a new unit, vehicle or character to re-inspire us. That’s why I bought a Blood Angels tactical box on the weekend. I’ve no use for it at the moment – it’s primarily for my Veteran Squad, something that I don’t intend to work on for a long time. I just needed a bit of inspiration. I needed a spark to keep me going and so I added to my grey tsunami (it really is getting quite large) without any hesitation.
Then there’s the ‘because I needed it’ line. The only times I give this any credence, is when a miniature is a limited release, like event exclusives, or something going out of stock. Easily the most childish of excuses, this just points to a weak will – something I fully admit to being guilty of myself in the past. When the last big series of CSM releases came out, I picked up a Heldrake and a Forge Fiend, knowing full well that it would take me ages to paint either in the scheme of the Death Guard that I was working on at the time. But it was new, and it was shiny and I ’needed’ both of them – again this fits a little with ‘Magpie Syndrome’ – and that was why I bought them both there and then. I never did finish that Forge Fiend and it has long since been pulled apart for bits. If I’d waited, then maybe I’d have finished my Heldrake, gone out, bought a Forge Fiend and then finished that, but I didn’t. I let it become part of the tide, and rarely are miniatures released from its clutches.
By far the most original excuse that I have ever heard was from an old acquaintance who was worried about his job security. I witnessed him picking up an armful of boxes and asked if he was starting a new army. His reply I still remember: “Not yet, but if I lose my job, I won’t have any money to spend on minis so I better buy loads now to keep me going”. There is some ridiculous logic here, but it’s ridiculous nonetheless. He, like so many of us, would see ourselves buried beneath unpainted plastic, and be oddly happy about that. The only excuse that I’ve heard that is nearly as ridiculous is the ‘well, you’ve got to spend your money on something right?’ line – this is why another associate of mine bought four landraiders, one of which has been painted in the two years since they were snapped up.
But Why Do We Do It?
The aforementioned ‘Magpie Syndrome’ plays a role, as do some of the more plausible excuses listed above, to a degree, but that’s only part of the story. There are other aspects of our personalities and this hobby that cause us to amass the great armies of unpainted soldiers that we possess. A great deal of the guilt lies with our imaginations and what we dream up whenever we see a model we like. For gamers, when a new miniature is released (or when they decided to try a new army), they dream of what they’ll be able to do with it on the battlefield. For painters, it’s all about what they can bring out with their paints – how they can create something amazing on this new, fancy slab of plastic. So we snap these things up and then our attention spans and imaginations have an arm-wrestling match and the winner will determine if the thing will ever really be painted. If our attention span wins, all is well, but if our imagination continues to reign, it is likely that we’ll be taken with something else new and fanciful before we get a chance to put undercoat to plastic. This is part of the reason why my Warhound is taking so long to tackle. I’ve imagined so many wonderful things on its armour plates, but my attention span lost out and my Imagination brought me to the Blood Angels. The struggle is real.
And life gets in the way too, not helping the attention span win the fight. Jobs, relationships, friends, commitments – they’re all very unhelpful when all you want to do is paint. But until we get a lottery win and accept that we, as humans, will always be, in the truest sense, alone (sorry for the bleak philosophy – needs must), we must acquiesce to the demands of modern living. All of this take up time and energy and when you have but an hour or two to paint on a evening, the churn of a long project can make sticking to the plan rather unappealing. So instead of working on what we’ve committed to, we buy something new and work on that instead, and the longer we are off a project, the less appealing it becomes.
What’s more, the myriad stresses of modern life do make treating yourself a legitimate excuse. If you’ve had a rough week and buying a Gorkanaut or a Ghostkeel will make you happy, provided you have the money to spare, there certainly shouldn’t be any shame associated with our particular form of retail therapy. The fact that you may never actually get around to painting what you’ve bought and that it might make you feel guilty further down the line is not relevant and a shorter term point of view is what’s needed here.
This is actually a tiny selection of Andy Warhol’s Cookie Jars.
Ultimately though, I believe that it boils down to the curious part of our psyche that makes us ‘collectors’. Collecting something is a very emotional act, or series of acts, that goes beyond the need to seek value. There have been a number of interesting exhibitions around London in recent years about people’s collections, and it really is a curious and intriguing thing. From Andy Warhol’s warehouses of collected fauna to those china plates your grandmother has in her cabinet, it’s not uncommon, and yet we understand so little about it. Psychologists have poured over the subject for generations now, with the likes of Freud and Jung both weighing in on the subject as well as modern psychologists too. The act of collecting gives the collector a sense of control over something, a way to express ambition, anxiety and stress relief, and a connection to the past that can be brought into the present. When I think about that, it’s all true. It’s escapism in a way – a method of pushing the real world away while we focus, in our case, on our toy soldiers.
When we apply this to the nature of the hobbyist, we find the crux of the issue. When your Grandmother collected those china plates, all she had to do was buy them and then display them. When Warhol filled his warehouses with all that junk, that’s all he had to do – buy it, and store it. But for those of us lamenting our Grey Tides, we have no such luxury. We collect, but then we have to put so much more effort in. Even the quicker painters struggle with turn around, and for those of us who paint at a snail’s pace, it’s all the more torturous. And thus the grey tide grows. Furthermore, the growing of a grey tide prompts a new type of stress and anxiety that replaces that which the very fact of being part of the hobby negates. Hardly an ideal solution. We are trapped because what we loves takes so long and offers us so much enjoyment, but our imaginations and GW’s release schedule is unrelenting and so the grey tides come in.
But Is It An Issue?
The thing about a grey tide is that it’s only really a problem if you think it’s one. However, while many won’t mind the growing queue at all, most will, at some point, usually when tidying up their hobby space, feel a pang of guilt. But why feel guilty? Is it that we lament the funds we could have put into rent, savings or pension schemes instead? Or is it that, like an unread book seems to yearn to be read, an unpainted miniature feels like half a thing – incomplete. Without the splashes of Mephiston Red and Naggaroth Night, White Scar and Castellan Green, a miniature is not really a miniature. It is instead still merely a product, a barcode and a box not yet imbued with the love, talent and creativity that will make it into something for our imaginations to make ‘real’. Is Abaddon The Despoiler Abaddon The Despoiler before his pallid flesh has been imagined, his pitch-black armour rendered or his daemon blade brought to life?
Many gamers who have no interest in painting will tell you he is, and perhaps they have a better time of it, but for those of us who like or favour painting, the answer is not so clear cut. So, those of us in that latter group, we of the bristle and ferule, are the ones with the real issue here. Our raison d’etre is to paint and so the unpainted are like ghosts, those plastic-wrapped boxes the coffins of those not yet brought to life.
But what of tomorrow? A new day brings new opportunities and while new miniatures come too, here in lies the chance to work on that which was set aside the day before. Will those of us with a grey tide be laughing while others have to trudge down to the FLGS to pick up something new to paint while we can simply reach beneath our desks for new things to paint? Perhaps. It’s not as bleak as it might be, and there’s always a chance that we could get round to painting these things. For many of us, in fact, it provides a challenge at some point. We nobly proclaim ‘ and nought shall be bought until all is painted!’ and we wade into our grey tide with hopes of preventing it from swelling further. And with any luck, we will not be King Knut when we do this, and instead, like Moses, we will cut through that which irks and chains and guilts us so.
So What Was All That About Then?
To be honest, I’m not entirely sure. I think I was just feeling guilty about my grey tide and I wanted to examine the phenomenon a little more. I don’t know where all the poetic verse and biblical references came from, but perhaps I was just feeling in the mood for writing with a little more drama than this blog is used to.
Look, what I was trying to say is that grey tides happen, and there must be a reason. Hopefully I pulled out (and pulled apart) some of those reasons, and added a little more to the debate (not that much of a debate exists but hey-ho). And at the end of the day, a grey tide is only an issue if you make it one, and you can even make getting through it a bit of a project too. I guess I’ll have to do that at some point. Otherwise there’ll be a few more of these monstrous articles cropping up here! Anyway, if you have a grey tide, don’t panic. You’re a normal weirdo, just like the rest of us. Don’t worry about the guilt now – it’ll fade, and you can speed it on your way by working through your unpainted minis. Just keep on ploughing through them. Onwards!
In part, mine bothers me because I used to be a faster painter before my health started declining, and if I could still paint at the rate that I did 13 years ago, I could totally clear out all of what I’ve got inside of a year.
This is also part of why I’ve resisted getting into AoS. As it stands, the AoS releases give me a bit of a break, because so much of the 40K stuff over the last couple of Years has gone straight to “Ooh, shiny! It must be mine!”
I like my grey tide, though it’s not so big at the moment as it has been. For me, the grey tide represents a break from whatever it is I’m working on at the moment. As a hobby butterfly, nothing fills me with more dread (in hobby terms at least) than the idea that I only have one option of what to paint next. At present, I have the choice of Iron Fists Landspeeders, Dusk Knights characters, devastators, vanguard veterans, another tactical squad or a drop pod, and I feel comfortable knowing that once my knight is finished, I have a choice of what to do next.
Really interesting article though, and very evocatively written.
One of the buggest culprets for the grey tide for me is box games, i dunno if its a case of getting overwhelmed by choice and not knowing where to start or if i find it easier to think in terms of a single mini, i.e. i have rarely (if at all) ever completed a squad to my satisfaction, sure i have several which are almost at the decal stage but not quite, but (and i class vehicles the same) for characters i have no issue in getting on with it, as soon as its grunts essentially i struggle, maybe its the painting rather than the playing which interests me more so for example a 10 man tactical squad is just a variation on a theme, where as a captain or other standalone mini is a challenge…
Still have so much to be getting on with i guess i can mull it over as i do 😉 Knowing once current project is over i have the following box fresh choices:
Epic 40k (primed)
WHW Command Tanks (Unopened)
Skitarii walker (unopened)
BA Terminator Box (unopened)
Dungeon Saga (unopened)
Some gorkamorka stuff (unopened)
30th aniversary marine (unopened)
Finish off execution force
repaint about 3k of BA i stripped when 3rd edition came out
Or maybe i will just buy something else lol 😉
Good article, and actually quite inspiring. I definitely suffer from guilt when I look at the grey tide, which is rather a pointless and counterproductive response. For me the trick is to focus on one or two projects, rather than letting myself think about how many human lifespans it would take to paint it all and how many generations of my family could live and die toiling away just to paint the stuff I’ve already bought. Certainly I feel less like Moses and more like the Egyptian army that was chasing after him – every time I think I’m making headway I look around and see the plastic tsunami about to break over my head.
Part of the blame for my grey tide has to be laid at the door of ebay. In many ways although it’s fantastic for sourcing bargains it’s also made every miniature into a limited edition release. Whenever I go on there I see something and think “wow, this model at THAT price! I’d be a fool not to pick it up right now. Really I’m being thrifty and saving money in the long run… I mean, I’ve always wanted one and I’ll never see it that cheap again…” Even when I do stay strong I inevitably see the same model again later for three times the price and think “see – should have bought it when it was cheap!. And thus the grey mountain grows…