After meeting at WarhammerFest 2023, Wargamer had the pleasure of interviewing James Otero, founder and manager of professional commission painting service Siege Studios. We spoke to Otero about his journey out of the music industry, how he started painting Warhammer professionally, and building one of the hobby’s largest painting studios.
How did you get started with Warhammer?
I did Warhammer from the age of nine until 17, and then I was in bands and music for a long time. I started in the local scene in a band with friends; we launched an EP, we got signed off the back of it. That had a couple of albums and a couple of EPs, and we played all over Europe, all over the place.
That’s the most extreme version of ‘turn 17, leave Warhammer’ we’ve ever heard. What kind of music did you make?
Metalcore. It was good fun. I used to work full time at a job and then when we got a tour I used to literally quit. Touring was the most important thing for me so I worked a lot of maternity contracts.
I was juggling a full-time, professional job, and at the same time trying to build the band as a business, to try and build that into something that I could do forever. That obviously didn’t work out, and after nine years of doing it I was like “That’s enough”.
How did you go from that to a commission painting studio?
Aged 26 I came back to my parents house, my old room, I was like “Right, what am I going to do?” So I got a job back with the recruitment company in Wakeford. One time I was going into the loft and I found my old Warhammer and just remembered all the old memories of playing Warhammer, painting Warhammer…
So I started recording videos of painted minis that I’d done, conversions and things, the Kit Bash diaries. After I put those on YouTube a couple of guys approached me.
They explained that they did commissions for people – that was the first time I understood commissions as commissions. When I was younger in my school gaming group I used to paint models for friends for 20 quid here, a packet of crisps there…
So I said “Yeah, sure, I’ll give it a go”. I had a lot of recruitment experience at that point and I saw loads of stuff on a day to day basis that I thought was not professional, not done with the client’s best interests at heart. So after a couple of projects with them, I had the spark of an idea to combine my recruitment experience and my love of painting.
What kind of experience did you have in recruitment?
I used to work with blue chip companies, massive companies, and recruit for everything from middle management to the directorate level. Mechanical, electrical engineering, oil and gas, freight forwarding companies, building management services. And I recruited in trades and labor, so electricians, plumbers, carpenters, joiners, everything you could think of.
What gaps did you see in commission painting?
Essentially, I saw that commission painting’s no different from those trades: it’s the application of time and experience. I did due diligence and searched in the industry for professional commission miniature painting companies. And there just weren’t any at that time.
When was that?
10 years ago, 2013 and 2014. There wasn’t anyone doing it in a very professional, commercialized, corporate kind of way. So a market gap was definitely there and I just thought that “I can do it”, and I just started Siege.
For the first year, it was just me with an email address and an Instagram account.
Did you go full time right away?
No, I was getting up two, three hours early every day, going to bed at 11 or 12 o’clock at night. Then some things happened in the recruitment firm. I worked very, very hard in recruitment for a long time, and I got mucked around quite badly by the company. My mortgage was going through for a property. My first mortgage, you know. And as a result of them changing goal posts at the last minute, I lost my mortgage.
Siege had been going for about three or four years at that point, and I was doing it by myself. I knew how well it was doing around a full-time 50 to 60 hour working week in recruitment. I just thought that if I could put eight or 10 hours a day into it, how much better could it be? I didn’t look back.
A lot of commission painting business grow organically out of a side hustle, but it sounds like you’ve always planned it as a business?
Always. One hundred percent. Even doing it as a side hustle it was done in a professional way. Everything I’ve ever done has always been done in a professional, corporate kind of way.
Even when I was in a band, we had a really good stage show, all our merchandise was professional, everything. Approaching commission painting in any other way was simply not how I would want to do it.
How big is the team now?
Over 70 painters work for the company, the majority are freelance – we’ve got an internal team.
How do you maintain consistent standards across so many people?
I see [commission painting miniatures] as a trade. Every other trade is regulated or has a governing body or a set of standards. Like, for example, in gas, you have “gas safe” certification, and the same kind of thing for electrical. So for commission painting to not have some form of regulation or set of standards seems crazy to me.
Now there’s nothing wrong with someone working at home just doing it for some extra cash in around a full-time job. But I think when you do it at a commercial and corporate level, if you don’t have those set standards, I think that’s quite disingenuous to a customer.
You need some kind of metric, so a customer knows that they’re either paying for this standard, or this standard, or this standard. And inside the business we have a governing body that regulates the quality for all of our levels. “This level needs to have that feature, this other level needs to have these features”, for all of our levels and practices. So that there is consistency between the whole plethora of team members, whether they’re freelance or internal.
Have there been any really weird commissions?
There’s always funny things. We’ve done a Space Marine Captain themed after Harry Potter, we’ve done a Goth Saint Celestine. We had a whole Space Marine army themed after bacon. We thought the client was being completely crazy, but it was deadly serious. He just wanted a Space Marine army themed after bacon.
One of the sergeants has got a ketchup squeezy bottle and a bacon butty in his hands. All the purity seals are tomatoes with rashers of bacon. The spec sheet from the client was hilarious. It was just pictures of bacon in frying pans, and pigs.
What bigger, nastier challenges has the studio faced?
You never have success without rough experiences. There’s always challenges and difficult things to go through – I think that you wouldn’t have greatness and success without having difficulty and hardship. It teaches you to appreciate and value the better times.
Covid was very difficult. Obviously it was a terrible thing globally for everyone. We had a massive increase in work as a result of people being trapped inside and experiencing the hobby for the first time or getting back into it like I did when I came back to my parent’s house.
One of the things personally for me is that, I’m 37, I don’t have any kids. During the growth of Siege I’ve sacrificed relationships. You have to be very selfish, unfortunately, to make something grow and go the way that you want it to. I’ve had relationships that have ended because I work too much.
We’re guessing you don’t have much time to game
I used to actually be a massive fan of playing games. And coming from a recruitment background, I’m hugely competitive by nature. But I don’t play computer games. I don’t watch Netflix. As much as in that moment you enjoy yourself and have fun, six, twelve months down the line, you don’t remember those, two or three hours, you invested into a game.
You might remember a dice roll, or that charge that you failed, or that attack that killed that character or something like that, I totally get that. However, for me, I’d rather invest that two and a half hours I’m never gonna get back into painting a miniature that I’ve always got.
You want to create something that lasts
That’s my mindset on it. I love the game, and if I were to go to an event and play a game, I know I’ll be hooked again just like that because of my nature. But running a business and growing the company to the heights of where I want it to be, there’s got to be some sacrifice.
You’re obviously driven – is it a drive that you have to channel, or risk it going somewhere you don’t pick?
My parents joke that as a kid, I used to get stones from my next door neighbour’s garden, and try and sell them back to my neighbour for sweets and for pocket money. Whatever it is, I go in 100%. I want to craft something that will always be there once I’m gone.
So you want Siege to still be running in 40 years time?
Yeah, one hundred percent. Because [mini painting] is an amalgamation of a trade and a hobby, I think that it’s always going to be there. People still paint paintings, people still do murals, even if a computer can do it – and personally, I don’t think a computer will ever do it to the intricacy and artistic flair that a human will.
It’s not like a games company that makes a game and it goes out of fashion 10 years down the line. If someone’s bought a board game and loves these miniatures, but they’ve not got the time to paint them, or the skill for that matter – well, we’re there for them.
I’m not the sort of entrepreneur or business owner that wants to build something, step away and go, “I’ll have the money, see you later”. I’m firmly on the steering wheel and want to be involved all the way from start to finish, to the moment I’m six foot under.
Thank you, James.
Wargamer can certainly relate to that last point about not having the time to paint all the miniatures from our board games: we’re still working the way through the minis from our Bardsung review and Darkest Dungeon board game review. We’re increasingly turning to speed painting methods to keep up – see our guide to Contrast Paints if you’re not quite ready to hire a commission studio to clear your backlog of unpainted minis.
All photographs in this article are copyright Siege Studios.