Representation is an interesting topic for some and merely a passing thought for others. In miniature painting, a hobby that is decades old may never have occurred to you. You might never have thought about it even if you’ve been there since the very beginning painting heroes, villains and monsters. To some, this essay will appear as common sense, but for some, it might provide a little insight into how hobbyists of varying backgrounds think. I can only ever speak for my experiences. In my experience, I’ve found diversity and representation to be of varying interest. It’s with that in mind I’ve decided to take a bit of a longer jaunt in the realms of exploration, into realms undiscovered and into fantasy.
In Warhammer Fantasy specifically, there have been unlimited boundaries, in theory since the beginning. In worlds where Elves, Dwarfs and Men exist, why too wouldn’t people of marginalised genders and ethnicities? Of course, they would, but you don’t see them as much as you’d think. A lot of modern fantasy has routes baked in older 20th-century fantasy, the likes of which penned by giants like Tolkien and interpreted by the folks at Wizards of the Coast in early Dungeons and Dragons, adapted into Movie form like the Lord of the Rings, or imagined on the tabletop by companies such as Games Workshop. I’d like to talk about representation in fantasy as expressed through miniature wargaming, particularly examining the universes of Warhammer Fantasy and its successor Age of Sigmar.
The World of Warhammer Fantasy was mostly based on our own; the map was an analogue of the real world map. Continents and cities take obvious inspiration from real-world places. Albion looks a lot like it could be Great Britain, Lustria looks a lot like it could be South America, Nippon looks a lot like it could be Japan and the Southlands, Africa. Much of the narrative of the Old World was set surrounding the Empire, which sits in an analogue of Western Europe and the Empire was the seat of our protagonists. In each land were close approximations of ethnicities you’d find in the real world. But the proportion of that you saw was definitely skewed.
“Any of them could be you, but none of them could be me”
I remember to this day actually explaining to a friend what representation felt like, someone I’d been hobbying with for about a decade. I picked up the Empire Army Book and pointed to the vast legions of Germanic-Inspired soldiers. The overwhelming majority of their art and models are male and white, bearing the heraldry of the Empire. I said to him ‘Any of them could be you, but none of them could be me, and this is the focal point of our story. They are the bastion against beasts, and the lands less civilised in their eyes’. The Empire fought against many threats, from the forces of Chaos from the Northern Wastes, the Lizardmen from Lustria and the Vampires from the East. It was pretty clear cut to me that they were what civilization looked like, these were our protagonists. They were who we were going to be rooting for, and I couldn’t see myself as any of them. Warhammer Fantasy was a game with plenty of options for you to play, yet feeling like you can’t associate with one faction probably isn’t that uncommon a feeling. But were there a couple more people of colour in the Empire, were there more signs of the women of the Empire, then they might have had the attention of a few more of us?
When we move to the Age of Sigmar, we see a dramatic restructuring of the world. The old world is gone. In its place, there are Mortal Realms, each aligned with one of the many winds of magic. Traversable by magic portals known as Realmgates, one could step from one plane of existence and familiarity to find wonders untold and realms unknown. Each of these realms was, while carefully curated with locales and features, loosely defined and ripe with possibility. We’re still uncovering patches of these planes seven years after the game’s release in 2015. Each of these planes is dotted with evocatively named places and opportunities for embellishment and population either by source publications or ourselves as hobbyists. There’s not too much detail on what the land might look like in some places, never mind their people. This opens up wonderful room for interpretation. This intentional lack of canonicity helps hobbyists come up with their own pockets of the Mortal Realms, where their characters are no less valid than the characters in the sourcebooks. The Mortal Realms are vast and uncharted and wherever you choose to lie, you will not be missed. This time, it really feels like it.
I’m going to use the example of Stormcast Eternals here. While there can be a little enmity held against them as the most visible faction, I’d like you to keep the Empire in mind while I talk about them. Stormcast Eternals can be many things, but one thing they all are is brave. They’re superhumans, made from cosmic energies, forged into new bodies with celestial lightning and unleashed upon the forces of Death, Destruction and Chaos. Their martial prowess can often be second to none, but this is a learned skill. Stormcast Eternals can learn the ways of martial combat, the way to tame beasts and the way to command mighty magics. One thing they cannot learn, however, is the ability to be good. Their souls are drawn from those across the Mortal Realms from every town, city, kingdom and plane of magic. All they had in common was that they were good, pure of heart and noble of spirit. They comprise visibly masculine and visibly feminine new bodies. This is represented in their model range wonderfully. When they were released in their first iteration in 2015, the first wave of Stormcast Eternals was visibly masculine. In their second iteration in 2018, their feminine counterparts emerged from the heavens to fight alongside them. Since then, their releases have had a wonderfully diverse mix of genders, featuring some of the greatest head sculpts for you to populate your Stormcast Eternals legions with. You can also use these interchangeably with your other miniatures in your collection. This progress has come leaps and bounds from Warhammer Fantasy, in which units entirely made up of women were niches and a novelty used to differentiate the army from other armies in their range.
Stormcast Eternals also exhibit ethnic diversity. As a person of colour, it’s been a difficult time in the miniature painting community. A lot of rules exist that you can interpret correctly or incorrectly regarding canonicity. When art may depict an entire faction of one ethnicity, it can draw questions from a particular kind of hobbyist for you to divert from this canonicity.
It should come as a side note that this is unacceptable. It’s wonderful if you find joy in accurately recreating the lore, the art and the imagery to the letter and to the brush stroke. But if someone else does not, it is unfair to make them feel uncomfortable for choosing to paint their miniatures how they like. This should go without saying, but it happens often, so I’m using my modest platform to say it. The lore can be a wonderful source of inspiration, but the second it stands in the way of your individual creativity, it isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. Go wild.
Some of you reading this might ask, and innocently enough, why it really matters. Why does it matter what the ethnicity of the sculpts, the art or the characters is when this is a hobby that provides you with unpainted miniatures? ‘You can paint them however you like’ is the language I’ve heard more times than I can count. And this is true, you’ve always been able to paint miniatures however you like. But when hobbyists of colour can’t see themselves in art, when you can’t be seen on the tabletop in your favourite worlds, then it’s easy to feel like you’re going against the grain.
Painting figures how you like isn’t always easy when it comes to painting skin tones that aren’t typically white. For a long time, there wasn’t a lot of knowledge popularised on the internet. In recent years, you’ll find video tutorials about painting dark skin or varying non-white skin tones. With resources like the Citadel Colour app and website, you’ll be able to. This wasn’t always the case though, and while I’m happy to have these tools now, a lot of people aren’t sure they’re out there. While it’s true that there’s a lot of hobby content on the internet out there and it’s fair for some of it to be a little buried, the volume of content regarding diverse skin tones is a little lacking. This is something I and others are trying to remedy through social media, blog posts and video tutorials. The question isn’t always how to paint the skin though, it can be what colours to use. Until recent years, paints used to paint white skin were called ‘Cadian Fleshtone’ and ‘Elf Flesh’. When you would scour the shelves for the paints for something that resembled your own skin you’d be pointed to a paint called ‘Rhinox Hide’. What on earth is a Rhinox? Do I have a hide? Or do I have a skin tone I’m proud of?
Accessible painting sets often came with one advertised overtly flesh colour. What then does the hobbyist of colour use to paint their miniatures, the one advertised leather colour? If so, what do they paint their leather? This makes the hobbyist who’s just getting started need to purchase additional paints to accurately represent themselves on the tabletop. This further introduces a financial barrier to that hobbyist’s journey. While it’s fair to expect a limited range of colours in a starter set, it’s about acknowledging the colours and products that make some hobbyists think again when you tell them ‘You can paint them however you like.’ It isn’t always so simple. If I had my own paint line one day, I’d take steps to ensure there are a number of named flesh tones. Little things like that can go a long way. When I see new paint ranges pop up from enterprising individuals, this is the kind of thing I expect, but don’t always see.
Steps are being made in the right direction in the Age of Sigmar. In the visible protagonist faction of the Stormcast Eternals, the highest-ranked character is a man called Bastian Carthallos. He is the Lord Commander of the most visible chamber, the Hammers of Sigmar, the blue and gold-clad army destined for printing on every box, every book, every battlefield. He is a Black man, a visibly Black man, with a nose like mine, with lips like mine and with strength like mine. His face is sculpted definitively with these features. That means a lot to a hobbyist who couldn’t see themselves in the Empire, but they can see themselves anywhere in the Mortal Realms. Anywhere the lightning takes us.
Thank you so much for reading this opinion piece on representation and the Age of Sigmar. I’d like to continue further study into these universes, looking into the realms of Warhammer 40,000 and similar. These articles do take a little longer than the average army showcase, however, which is why I appreciate you checking this somewhat different article out.
I’d love to hear from you, regardless of your background, or your experiences.
How have you felt about representation in the tabletop wargaming hobby? Have you felt an abundance, have you felt a lack, have you never thought about it at all? Do you feel like more could be done?
Everyone’s opinion is valid and contributes to the wider discussion and understanding of how we all may better enjoy these shared words we choose to inhabit together.
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Thanks again, and wherever you may go, may you be seen.
9 thoughts on ““You can paint them however you like”: Race and representation in Warhammer ”
Great read thank you! I grew up with Warhammer fantasy and loved it but I was right in the default, white man audience. As I grew older, I became more uncomfortable with the default you describe. Coming back into the hobby now after many years out, I find age of sigmar too “similar but different” broadly to get as invested in as I did the old world; but you’ve convinced me that’s for the best as it has let GW cast off a lot of the uncomfortable baggage that the original setting was never going to be able to shed. Would love to read your take on 40k.
I can’t pretend to know what representation means but I really can empathise with you mate.
Beautifully put. Ultimately lore, art, or any creative substance should come from personal experiences. Feelings that are self taught and expressed in a way that makes you ‘you’.
Keep smashing it out man, you’re an incredibly talented artist and do wonders for the hobby community.
Great read thanks for posting this. I’ve been painting warhammer minis since the early 2000s and as a white man for a long time I’d never really questioned everyone looking like me in art and painted miniatures. I may be naive but I do think for the majority of hobbyists this is not a malicious thing but a lack of being presented with the point of view of others. It’s hard to think about what you’ve never had to think about, and this makes posts/tweets/etc like this very important. Over the past few years (BLM and discussions about the importance of representation were what triggered me to think deeper about this) I’ve grown more aware of the fact that is an issue and have tried to ensure I include varied skintones in my painting.
Thanks for posting this, great read! I’m a long time Warhammer hobbyist and as a white guy never really questioned that everyone looked like me in art and painted miniatures. That changed a few years back when BLM happened and conversations about representation were amplified and I had a deeper think about my defaulting to white skin on all minis and as result adding variety there. Perhaps naively I think that most people aren’t doing things maliciously they have just done things the way they’re always done, and it takes being presented with another point of view to shake up that state. It’s hard to spontaneously think about something you’ve never had to think about. That’s why I think posts like yours are really valuable, they provide that trigger to think about something in a new way.
Great article, I hope it helps those who are resistant to change and representation understand what a barrier their dogmatic approach to the lore can be. I’m a middle aged white guy, everything’s always been served up for me, which never sit right in my view of the hobby.
I think the Death Wing supplement was the first time an alternate culture was shown as part of the Grimdark universe and I immediately wanted that diversity in my Armies. I was tired of seeing ranks of white guys & the so-called ‘flesh’ paints didn’t work for me anyway. Having dark skinned Space Marines was just cool and different at the time. But it really shouldn’t be seen as ‘different’. The universe is so vast, so varied, anyone and anything could exist so nothing should be out of the Realm of possibility.
I’ve since tried to mix in many different skin tones, my Genestealer Cult even has Turquoise cultists in homage to Rogue Trooper. It pains me to see people deny others the ability to represent themselves or express their own creativity and inspiration. Keep writing about this and sharing your views.
To clarify before I say anything – white dude here. When I started this hobby I stuck to painting one skin tone because I sucked at painting (ultramarines and cadians mostly) so I was very much dwarf flesh, flesh wash, elf flesh over the top and that was every dude I did.
As I grew as a painter I tried to diversify my imperial guard (at the time the greco-roman vibe meant i stuck to pale or slightly tanned looks? Plus I think canon at the time implied the geneseed could override race? Unsure) but for guard the idea of a whole planet being one ethnicity felt wrong. So I wanted to mix it up, not through any desire to be “woke” or even representative, I was a teenager and didn’t care about that kind of thing. It just made sense for me that my guys would all look different. And I went to my local GW and asked for advice on how to paint varied skin tones as the current paint range didnt have a “dark flesh” named colour and I’m a little colour blind so locating colours without help can be daunting. The Staff member just advised I used a darker wash to create varied tones. This wasn’t good enough for me so I attempted to approximate dark and olive skin tones but I didn not do a great job – I had a guy in shaded rhinox hide that basically obscured all his definition in darkness and my olive skin was just a bit off? (if I’m using poor language here for skin colour please correct me I’m never 100% certain)
However in the last couple years space marines became diverse, painting guides became more diverse and the paint range expanded – and my painting improved again. I now regularly use 4 skin tones in models I paint (very pale, white, olive and dark) and a few variations within this and the range expansion has definitely made this easier. Rhinox hide might still be a great base for very dark, but Catachan Flesh is a great base for dark skin. And as time has gone on varied ethnicities in my little plastic dudes is still important to me for interesting variation but it also feels a little bit like the right thing? I can’t explain it exactly. It’s not like I’m taking great leaps forward in the realms of equality and acceptance or anything – but I feel by having that variety in what I paint and what I display for other people to see I am at least showing that its all a good thing.
Warhammer (and other tabletop games) are great fun and I think everyone should give them a go, or at least give them a look. And if a lack of diversity in the art and on the table ever puts someone off – that sucks. More players is always a good thing and I would love for everyone to feel like this is a hobby they could be part of and a wide community that accepts anyone – no limits
as a P.S the model I painted terribly in rhinox hide, a few years later with the paint range expansion I went back and gave him a touch up to give him the definition he deserved
Thank you for sharing this. It’s often difficult to ask people to re-examine familiar concepts from a different perspective and sometimes the reaction can be hostile. I do feel that the effort is worth it. Thoughtful words and honest discussion will lead to change, eventually
I’m a white mother in the hobby space. As a female I’ve always avoided Games workshop products and games due to the lack of representation or disrespect for females in the space. While definitely not the same in terms of ethnicity but I understand not having models in the line I can associate with. It is incredibly hard to connect to a product or even feel comfortable going to a store to play when the entire time it is a male dominant space. I do not desire a date when I came or be hit on while I play. Recently there is a new awesome female in the Stormcast Eternals and the amount of joy to have 1 model that I can connect with is both really exciting but also makes me so much more aware how bad it is for non cis white males.
Thank you for sharing your perspective and story.
As a white, cis, straight-passing man, my one brush with representation and why it matters has always come from an entirely different and easily seen as minor angle. Body type.
See, I’m fat. I’ve been fat since I was a kid. And for most of my life the only characters I saw that looked like me were almost to the last slothful, cowardly, physically inept and/or villains.
I had a friend ask me once why such a minor character as Jek Porkins from Star Wars meant so much to me. “You’re blond and athletic.” I told him. “You can easily see yourself in a lot of heroes on the screen. But for me, Porkins, despite the obviously humorous name, was one of the first times I’d seen a fat character shown as an equal in a group of heroes, masking an heroic sacrifice in a desperate climatic battle. He’s a minor character, yes. He dies, sure. But he’s there, he’s counted and the narrative doesn’t treat him like a joke. And to a fat kid, that can mean the world.”
What I mean is, I can never know how much a person of color needs representation, but judging from how much I needed it, you have all my respect, support and admiration for the resilience you have to show in this regard.