I Painted Toy Soldiers for Fun: I Made Thousands but Should Have Charged More

by posted in MAKE MONEY, Passive Income Ideas, Remote Job Opportunities, Side Hustle Ideas

The old saying goes that if you do what you love, you will never work a day in your life. 

We all have our passions, whether it be a local sports team, video games with friends, or something crazier like parachuting. Everybody has something they enjoy doing, and if you are willing to put the effort into it, even some of the most niche hobbies out there can become a profitable side hustle

Don’t believe me? 

Over the years, I made a few thousand dollars by painting toy soldiers for table top fans. I was a commission painter, specifically for miniature models for tabletop war and board games. 

This is about as geeky as it sounds, but I loved my little hobby, and if it weren’t for some very supportive friends, I would never have found this line of work. 

What Is Commission Painting?

Image courtesy of Simon Neve

Commission painting is fancy talk for someone who paints something for a client for money. Almost all of my work was for Warhammer 40K. 

Here’s how it works: Someone buys a squad of Space Marines from their local war game shop and doesn’t want to paint the models themselves. 

There are several reasons for this: 

  • they don’t have the time, 
  • they lack painting materials, 
  • They want them done to a high standard, or 
  • they may not like painting miniatures

Whatever the reason, this is where we commission painters step in. 

The person who bought the Space Marines approached me and asked me to paint their new ones. We would chat to iron out the specifics, like what colors they wanted them painted, what standard they wanted them done to, and when they needed them done. A price would be agreed upon, and then I would take the Space Marines away from the client and get to work on the project. 

The models are built, primed, painted, and returned to the customer before the deadline. The customer receives lovely painted models, and I get some extra money in my pocket; everybody wins. 

Why Pursue Commission Painting?

I never sat down and decided to start a side hustle in commission painting; the work found me. Like most people with an artistic hobby, I was self-deprecating about my work, and I never thought I had the talent for something like that. The reality is that I was a pretty good painter, and if you consider the short amount of time I had been part of the miniature painting hobby, I was an outstanding painter by that metric. 

Let me take you back to 2016. This was the year I discovered Warhammer and became enthralled. I watched countless YouTube videos, devoured books, amassed a very expensive collection of models, and became addicted to painting. 

Thanks to the hours I spent completing my projects, I quickly became a competent painter. This is the most critical advice I give to any hobby miniature painter, not only those who want to make a side hustle from it. I was asked almost daily how I got so much stuff painted, and the answer was simple. 

You sit down and paint your damn models. This may seem obvious, but if you have ever met someone who paints Warhammer before, you will know yourself. We all suffer from the curse of becoming too inspired to paint. There’s always a dream project on the horizon, a color scheme to perfect, or some inspiration they must obtain before work can begin. 

The fact is this: if you sit and start painting, the work gets done. 

How To Become Successful at Commission Painting

A little over a year after becoming a painter, people noticed my work. My models placed highly in painting competitions. I was coaching people on painting techniques, and they asked if I would paint models for them. 

Of course, imposter syndrome set in, and I believed I was not good enough to paint anyone else’s models for money. With requests coming in thick and fast, I started painting for friends for free. 

Things were going great, but then a friend refused to let me paint for him for free. He scolded me like a child and demanded that I start charging people for my work. 

This was the catalyst that defeated that horrible voice that creeps into your brain and tells you, “You are not good enough,” when deep down, you damn well know you are. I painted the model for him; he paid me and entered it into the local store anniversary painting competition. 

It tied for first place with another model painted by a professional painter. Thanks to my friend, I had proven to myself that I was ready for this.

While my work would never win any awards, I never had any complaints, and all of my customers seemed happy. The best thing about this business is that you can take on as much or as little as you want. 

But like all freelance work, it does suffer from the feast-or-famine problem. Some months, I turned people away because I was fully booked. Other times, almost always when I could have used the money, all the work dried up, and there wasn’t a lot I could do about that.

A friend stepped in and helped show me the way again. This friend owned and ran an online commission painting business; he accepted commissions from all over the country, not just the local area, as I did. He was busy all the time, so much so that he couldn’t complete all the work himself. To combat this, he hired freelancers to lighten the load. 

We freelancers completed projects for him, and he took a cut of the commission. This helped me during the quiet months and ensured my extra money always came in.

With all my work, I earned an average of around $480 to $650 monthly profit, sometimes much more. 

I made almost $1,200 in one month, but getting that was a lot of effort. To work out my prices, I would make an educated guess of how many hours the project would take to complete. The hourly rate I would charge was based on the standard they wanted the model(s) done to. 

The rate would be low for basic jobs but higher if they wanted it for display standards. I would then add about 5–10 percent for supplies to reach my final fee.

Here’s My Advice

Image courtesy of Simon Neve

If you have ever thought about becoming a freelance painter, you should stop thinking about it and go for it. If a friend has ever asked you to paint models for them, congratulations! You are good enough to do it. 

Your reputation is your most important asset when you only deal with people in your local area. I advise you to protect that reputation as if it were your firstborn child. That means sticking to your deadlines, not half-assing your work, treating your customer’s models with respect, and recognizing how lucky you are to have monetized your hobby. 

If you botch your reputation, people won’t take long to take their business elsewhere. 

Also, never advertise your services on online work marketplaces like Fiverr. These marketplaces tend to be a race to see who can charge the least amount of money, and they tend to attract the worst kind of clients. 

The last and most important thing I can say is not to neglect your own models. Painting your own models hits differently. When painting becomes work, it is easy to begin resenting your hobby. 

Don’t let that happen. 

Sit down and paint something you want and how you want to paint it. Find that straightforward enjoyment for the process inside yourself again, and don’t let go of it; it will help you get through those tough jobs of painting 100 of the same model.

If I Had To Do It All Over Again

I am jealous of you if you consider starting painting as a side hustle. 

If I were to start again, I would change a few things. First, I would charge close to double what I was charging before. I was not charging people enough money and was scared of losing customers by charging more. Now that I am older and wiser in the freelance world, I see the error of my ways. 

I would create a personal brand. It would make me appear more professional and give customers peace of mind that they have chosen the right person to work with. 

The last and most important thing I would do is turn my work into content for various social media platforms. I would record myself doing the work, explain my process and the client’s requests, and advise about miniature painting. 

My aim with the content is to help market my services and monetize that marketing through advertising and crowdfunding services. 

We can combine everything here to create a step-by-step process to become a successful commission painter. 

First things first, become a good painter. 

If you aren’t a seasoned painter, people will not want to give you their hard-earned money. You don’t need to be the next Picasso, but you can’t be rubbish.

The next step is to get your work noticed. Enter local painting competitions, post your work in local social media groups (Discord, Facebook, etc.), and play war games with your painted models in public areas. Once you have a good name, it is time to start offering your services to people. You may have to do some jobs for free, but consider them spec pieces for your portfolio. 

Once you land your first paid job, you are a professional painter and should be proud of yourself.

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