A brush with success

Appleton artist finds niche painting miniature gaming figures

Posted on Sep 1, 2017 :: The Business of Life
Jessica Thiel
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

When Sam Lenz enters one of his creations into a  painting competition at one of many gaming conventions around the country, it’s understandable his peers get a little intimidated.

The Appleton-based painter of miniature gaming figures has, after all, won more than 50 awards for his miniscule masterpieces. Several of those include Crystal Brush awards, one of the highest honors given out for the medium.

A self-trained artist, Lenz didn’t set out to make a career of painting miniatures. For a long time, it was just a hobby that began as a child watching his father assemble model airplanes and paint little army men.

One day, Lenz’s oldest brother came home from a game store with a box of miniatures, and he was hooked.

“He spray-painted one solid gold, and I was like, ‘Oh, that’s so cool!’ It’s my first memory of being inspired.”

Lenz started out as a tattoo artist, and a customer noticed a collection of miniatures he had painted and displayed in the shop. A long-time tabletop gamer, the customer connected Lenz with a friend he knew, and soon after, Lenz secured his first customer-commissioned set.

Continuing to work at the tattoo shop, Lenz began to attend gaming conventions. Finding inspiration in other artists and blogs he’d found online, he eventually decided he had what it took to make a go at painting for a living. He won his first trophy in 2009.

Lenz built his business selling models on eBay and posting pictures of them on his blog. “I just kind of plant as many flags as I can around the internet,” he says.

Sam_Lenz_2

These days, Lenz is well-known enough for people to find him more easily. He primarily does commission work, though he also makes time to paint what pleases him. He’s painted creations for people from all over the world, from Asia to Europe, one time even painting a fleet of figures for a Swedish boy’s Christmas present. 

Over the years, he’s painted more than 2,000 figures. They range in quality from pieces used for tabletop gaming to display-level works. He may crank out 10 tabletop figures in a day and charge $15 to $25 each, but he’ll often spend 15 to 20 hours on a single high-end piece and charge $200-plus.

So small they’re measured in millimeters, many miniature figures stand less than 2 inches tall. Imagining someone painting something so small begs the question: Isn’t it easy to mess up? You’d think, Lenz says, but he uses small brushes. At the same time, certain details — eyes for example — still present a challenge.

“You’re really getting in there sometimes and painting between breaths,” he says.

To do that intricate work, Lenz doesn’t rely on a magnifying glass or wear jeweler’s glasses. He does, however, need to allow himself frequent breaks. Every hour or so, he steps outside to stretch and let his eyes refocus.

Attaining the level of detail he desires on the figures is all about “building up many thin layers,” Lenz says. To achieve this, he dilutes paint to get it to behave in certain ways. A typical day for him includes about five hours of painting.

Adam Loper, the friend who spotted Lenz’s work in the tattoo shop years ago, created a successful YouTube channel called Tabletop Minions. It boasts more than 55,000 followers and has tallied 4.5 million views. Lenz does a “Painting with a Pro” spot on the channel. A miniature figure painter himself, Loper says Lenz’s speed sets him apart.

“One of the things that impresses me most about his talent is how quick he is at it,” Loper says. “That’s perfect for doing commission work.”

Moving into the future, Lenz would like to find ways to expand his reach and diversify his sources of income. He’s already done some tutorials on YouTube, and eventually he’d like to do his own weekly live show.

A Town of Winchester native, Lenz sees teaching classes as the next step in his progression. He’s done Skype lessons with people and taught classes to individuals and small groups. He’d like to run monthly classes and hopes to travel and teach someday. He’d also like to find success in other mediums such as making and selling prints and T-shirts.

Lenz draws the greatest gratification from inspiring others and the sense of accomplishment he feels at the end of each day.

“At this point, I can look at everything I own, and I’ve gotten that all from the hand, maybe my two hands,” he says. “I created it all with my own talents.”