“Do what you love, and you’ll ever have to work a day in your life.” It sounds picture-perfect until one realises that it might not get the bills paid. Then what? We decide to explore if the archetype of the starving artist still holds up in 2019.
So we talked to Shum Kah Hay, 32, who has dedicated his time and life to a very specific type of art and craft: miniature figure painting.
The self-taught journey into miniature painting
From a very young age, Kah Hay has always loved tinkering with things and using his hands, favouring crafts and interests like paper origami and watercolour painting.
In school, his studies weren’t anything spectacular – he even failed English. But upon entering ITE, he found that he enjoyed the technical design course he enrolled in, and followed up by studying mechanical engineering in a local polytechnic.
But by the time he came to his second year, Kah Hay realised that mechanical engineering wasn’t that great a fit. “I was hoping for a more hands-on approach, but there was a lot more computation and machine usage than I expected,” he said. “Instead of being the craftsman, the numbers confused me, and I barely scraped through.”
He floated through NS, trying to find a life direction, and lost what was left of his interest in mechanical engineering.
But when video game consoles entered the market with a boom, he was immediately drawn to it.
“I have a shameful amount of video games, and it’s been the driving force of my interests,” Kah Hay revealed to me the afternoon we met. “So I decided to get into game design, or something related to it.”
He took up digital painting and experimented with Gunpla – a portmanteau for “Gundam plastic model,” where hobbyists buy, assemble, and paint Gundam figures – though he confessed he “didn’t know how to do it well.” Yet there was always keen interest.
Following Warhammer 40K’s – a popular miniature wargame released in 1987, where players duke it out on a miniature battlefield with a ruleset and dice – a surge in popularity in the mass market, Kah Hay gained tons of interest in its lore, history – and its miniature figures.
“I wanted to pick up painting miniatures instead of scale models because miniatures not only look good, but can also be used as game pieces,” he said.
As he told me his story, he pulled out a set of miniature figures – from the very first Warhammer piece he ever painted, to more elaborate, whimsical figures he’d worked on over the years, significantly marking his improvement and talent. I was blown away, almost immediately, by the sheer detail and textures.
“What I know about painting was mostly self-taught,” he told me, as he slowly revealed each miniature figure, one at a time. “I tried to find articles, books, and any information on the internet because I wanted to learn.”
His first miniature figure turned out “horrendous,” according to Kah Hay. But a few months later, after giving it a second go, he redeemed himself with another Warhammer figurine that was ten times more impressive and detailed – with matching terrain to boot.
“I started about 12 years ago,” he revealed. “I went for a course on game design and wanted to make these figures look alive; they’re meant to look a certain way when you put them on the table.”
Kah Hay has worked with various artists and toymakers, both local and foreign, on a wide range of pieces, and generally enjoys the process of “breathing life” into them. At one point, he even painted prototypes for a toy company.
The bulk of his work comes largely through word-of-mouth, where he fulfills small favors every now and then, charging about $15 to $20 for minis – though they may take up to five hours or more. It didn’t seem worth it to me, in terms of output and compensation.
As he explains it, “The things I do is not money-friendly sometimes – and by that, I mean that artists may not know their worth, and may undercharge for high-effort work. I’m still learning the ropes of commercial work, but I don’t like rushing it. I believe in quality.”
It’s clear that he’s still very much a hobbyist at heart. As such, he is only getting by financially for the time being, with just enough money for food. Currently, he’s working with an acquaintance of an old friend, simply working on miniatures.
I asked if he would ever increase his rates over time, as he becomes more experienced with figure painting.
“Maybe. While I do value my clients, I try to keep things as justified as possible,” he said.
Passion is key
We then hopped on the topic of another tabletop game that used miniatures: Dungeons & Dragons, or D&D, featured prominently in Stranger Things and Riverdale. There was a revival of mainstream interest surrounding the OG tabletop game. Perhaps there were more business opportunities there?
“The miniatures would be a nice touch,” he acknowledged. “Not many people have good visualisation skills, so they use models. If they’re well-painted, it’s a great add-on to the experience.”
But he hasn’t ventured that far yet, stating that he’s only worked on tabletop armies and miniature games for the time being.
In terms of moving forward for the future, Kah Hay is putting more of his work online for people to see – first starting on Facebook, before eventually considering other social media platforms.
In the meantime, he intends to hustle with a day job to get by.
“I was retrenched from my previous job at a landscaping company, which gave me soul-draining work,” he recounted. “I joined a company briefly to do commission paintings, but that eventually didn’t work out either. My most comfortable skill right now is driving, so I’m applying to become a private driver for the time being.”
It’s hard to swallow, observing someone with a gleam in his eye when talking about his craft, dedicating years of effort to honing his skills, yet struggling to get by.
But he still maintains some hope, in light of Warhammer’s success and popularity. “Their marketing was very good, and I know they’re using Singapore as an experimental ground for their efforts. If they can use their experiences here for regional and global marketing efforts, the interest may persist and live on.”
And as for his strong interest in miniature figure painting, Kah Hay holds onto it as a lifeline – something that revitalises him so he can face the everyday.
“We work to get things done, then we tap into our passions to keep going,” he said.
Kah Hay is “absolutely” certain that passion drives him to this day. “It gives purpose and direction,” he said. “Without it, there’s nothing. It’s no different from being lifeless.”
And as for what he feels about the future of miniature games or tabletop games, he doesn’t want to put a number on it.
“It could be 20 more years of interest down the road. This hobby is really niche, with only about 200 people in the community,” he said. “That’s a small subset of people. If there’s no interest, then that’s it.”