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Friday, June 21, 2024

YouTube artist Ninjon on the long road to his first Golden Demon win

Jon “Ninjon” Ninas is a successful YouTuber, well known by both the algorithm and the hobby community as an excellent and exciting painter and presenter. As of last month, he’s also a Golden Demon winner, having taken home the bronze award in the Unit or Warcry Warband category at AdeptiCon 2024. This was Ninas’ third time entering the prestigious contest sponsored by Games Workshop, but only his first medal win so far.

Polygon spoke with him from his home studio in Minnesota to learn more about his work, his process, and the jaw-dropping scene that he created for the contest. Our interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Polygon: The last couple of years, I’ve visited AdeptiCon and spent a lot of time there. I wasn’t able to make the trip this year, but your piece jumped out at me. I’ve actually learned a lot from watching you over the last couple of years — you and Scott “Miniac” Walter as well. But I think, like a lot of folks, my own journey started with presenters like Duncan Rhodes. You’re doing things much more dynamically, and I think that’s really interesting. How did you get into this line of work?

Jon Ninas: I had worked in health care communications and marketing for over a decade. When COVID hit, you had suddenly had a bunch more time at home. I’d always thought about doing a YouTube channel and I decided now was the time. Usually if I do a thing I’m totally invested. I try to do as best I can. And that’s how I approached YouTube as well. That said, maybe you wouldn’t know that from watching my videos. I take it pretty lighthearted there. It’s as much about having fun and just goofing around with the thing that we do, which is paint little toy soldiers and push ’em around the table. So if we’re having fun, then maybe you’ll actually learn a couple of things.

If I can just ease that on-ramp to get you to paint one night a week, or a couple of nights a week, or 30 minutes a week, and then to go out and see what excites you so maybe you want to do it again soon, then I consider that a victory.

A collection of four figures and a dog. In the back a Cavalier Martial sits astride a warhorse, his banner flowing in the wind. He has a striking red cape. To the left a squire with a severed head on a post. To the right a man in a leather cap, which is drawn up tight around his neck, hides the sword in his hand. In the foreground a stout man-at-arms holds a massive axe, and a dog stands proudly, muscular and scarred along his flank.

Photo: Jon Ninas

I want to talk in particular about your submission this year. How did you conceive of this particular scene?

This is almost kind of like a weird, old-timey family portrait where it’s a group of kind of come-together, ragtag defenders of a ruined city wall defying those that are trying to kill their families within.

They are there together in their army’s colors, but very vaguely. None of them look like they were part of the same regiment, or even have the same skill set. I think that’s what really excited me, is to try to pull them together through more subtle uses of color and ambience of the scene, but still make each one of the figures a distinct character. You look at them and you can see that they they each have their own story, but together they’re trying to mount a last defense.

A close-up of the Martial, his red gap nearly glowing in the light. His armor looks dusty and old, with many scratches illuminiated by delicate highlights.

Photo: Jon Ninas

When you sat down to design this scene, were you working just from a boxed set of miniatures? Were you working with pen and paper? Were you mocking things up in Photoshop? What did you do before you started putting it all together?

When I was a little kid, when I wanted to grow up I wanted to be a comic book artist. I spent much of my time from about the third or fourth grade drawing in class instead of paying attention. I got pretty good at Wolverine, [but for] a large section of my life — mostly through most of my 20s and into my 30s — I had gotten away from art. Getting back into miniature painting really kind of scratched this itch of creativity for me.

When I approached this piece, I knew it had to be a strong scene even before I put paint on the miniatures. The important step that I took — and this was kind of a big portion of learning for me over competing over the years — is really composing a sound scene ahead of time, and kind of repositioning the figures throughout. But it all started with sketches.

A close-up of the man-at-arms, the haft of his axe delicately textured to look like leather-wrapped wood.

Photo: Jon Ninas

I would sketch out whereabouts each figure would be, how they would create this nice silhouette. If you were to turn all the lights off and just backlight it, could you see all their silhouettes?

My muse for the piece was the Cavalier-Marshal. He’s the gentleman in the back on the horse, and he has this very distinct look. His horse is kind of coming downhill, and he’s looking off into the distance. I could just envision him kind of leading a troop into some grim situation. His face isn’t excited. It’s not screaming for battle. It’s just the seriousness of what’s in front of them. He was the start.

Just the painting was roughly 250 hours. Then there was probably another 20 to 30 hours of building and sculpting the base and the whole scene. Then there’s hours before for the whole concept and design phase.

A close-up of the Squire. The head on the pike is green and mushy, while the Squire’s face is bright and young.

Photo: Jon Ninas

It’s a bit scary because you are putting out to the world, This is as good as I am, and that can be a really kind of daunting realization. Because you are not just showing everyone this is as good as I am, but you’re also kind of showing yourself.

Oftentimes when I paint miniatures, I need to paint a bunch of these these models for my D&D game, or I need to paint these so I can play the game with a fully painted army. Speed and getting things done quickly is a part of the hobby, so we often don’t paint as best as we can. So when you do that, you’re kind of putting yourself out there.

As an artist, how do you see yourself in conversation with the intellectual property holder, and in conversation with all the other folks in the hobby with this piece?

There are some really pivotal pieces that people say elicit an emotional response in them, and to me that’s a key part of what diagnoses something as art. To me, it’s really important that you’re able to tell your story to someone that has never heard the term “Warhammer” before, or to someone who has never seen the models before.

I view the miniatures themselves as means of inspiration, things that excite you, a great starting point. But they’re also kind of a tool, just like good paints are a tool, your paintbrushes. For a traditional artist, the canvas is a tool. But the manufacturer of the canvas, if you were to buy it and not stretch it yourself, is pivotal in the work. But you still need to make it your own, and you still need to create off of it.

A really good boy, standing before his master. A small gash on his left leg stands out from the texture of his fur.

Photo: Jon Ninas

I think it’s really important that you can tell a story for someone that has no background knowledge of the game itself. But you also are leaning into an homage to that world, to the lore, to the company that has invested so much in not only the technology to create the sculpting that’s done, [but also for the other] artists [who work at] making the little plastic soldiers that we paint. This is an homage to all that work, and all that history. At the same time, those that do know about all that lore and do understand it, they can recognize that, for instance, my scene depicts the Order of House Aqsha, and that their colors are uniform, and that they have certain symbolism, and certain markings on their shields, or on their armor. They’ll get that, but you don’t need to know that to still appreciate it.

Where do you go to fill the cup? What are you using out there in the wider world to give you inspiration?

I love other amazing miniature painters. I look up to them. I also am inspired by some of the videos that other people in this realm do. I also love going back to comic books, as well as other fantasy artists like Frank Frazetta, and Boris Vallejo, and Brom, and Jim Lee. I’m a big Jim Lee nerd from when I was a kid and comic books.

Other forms of art can inspire me, or make me think about some really interesting way that they do texture, or they do color, or they do to create the feel of an environment. How could I try to do that in miniature? That’s really exciting to think about.

Another thing that I really enjoy doing is I love the outdoors and I love nature. I will go wander to the woods. I’ll go take my dog for a walk, or my daughter and I will go hiking. There’s a lot to really get inspired from in the natural environment around you. How does moss grow on trees? What vibrant greens does it have that you don’t think of when you’re not thinking about trying to recreate it yourself? Little things in the world around us are pretty awesome to kind of absorb when your brain is always kind of thinking about recreating that in a tiny little space the size of a quarter.

I made a point to try to document the process this year over a series of videos to show some of the struggles, some of the kind of the stress that goes into it, the weight that you put on yourself, the sheer amount of time that you spend and how that can grind on you. But also, the small moments of joy and small successes along the course of a project, and the importance of taking those for yourself.

To me, the success of winning a trophy at the end is valuable. But what’s much more important to me was that for the first time, we now have a documented process of somebody working on something and not knowing what the outcome was going to be. Just going back and seeing the whole process start to finish, that I think I’m equally or more proud of.

The official photo of Ninas’ winning scene as shot by Games Workshop.

Photo: Games Workshop

What are a few big tips you would want to share with beginning painters?

It does not matter where you’re at on your painting journey, or what model you’re painting, or how hard you’re trying. Every single model you paint will make you a better painter, and by the time you’re done, the next one that you paint will be better because you’ve finished the last one.

The most important thing is finding a way to make painting enjoyable for you so when you finish a figure you’re excited to start the next one. You’re not dreading starting the next one. And that’s a personal experience that’s different for all of us. But listen to what brings you happiness, and lean into that. If you do that, you will be surprised how much you will grow, because anything in life that we enjoy doing we naturally get better at it faster.

In terms of specific techniques or specific products, we could have a whole separate article just on that, but I will say that an expensive sable-hair brush with a razor-sharp tip at some point in your miniature painting journey will be necessary. Because these things are tiny, and you need a brush that’s reliable.

I’m not saying it feels good to spend $20 to $25 on a single tiny paintbrush. Once you get the hang of painting, and you get your legs under you, and you’ve worked with cheap brushes that you get at the art supply store or the craft store — you should absolutely use those. But when you get that really fine quality tool, that will take you where you need to go.

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