Suggestions for Contest Entries

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I wrote this up to post in the Reaper forums as advice for people entering the MSP Open at ReaperCon in a few weeks, but since most of the advice applies to entering any contest, I figured I would share here, as well. (Also it’s not too late to come to ReaperCom 2019, come join us for the fun!)

ReaperCon stage

Hey fellow painters! We’re a few short weeks out from the Reaper MSP Open. I am really looking forward to seeing what everyone brings – it’s a highlight of the show for me!

For many years I have offered feedback on people’s minis after the contest, in classes, or just hanging out at the artist table. I expect I’ll be doing so again in a few weeks. But this year I thought I might also try offering some general advice in advance. These comments are based on the feedback topics that come up most often.

I know some of you have heard similar critique more than one year running, or from more than one critiquer. Which I know from experience is very frustrating! Trust me, I still get told that my work needs more contrast. And I’m still struggling to try to put that advice into practice! So I would like to start with a radical suggestion –

Go Big!

This one is for all the people who’ve received criticism about insufficient contrast, or their OSL not being dramatic enough, or another effect appearing too subtle. So many people worry about being too over-the-top or ‘unrealistic’ while they’re painting, and then after the contest receive feedback that their work is too subtle or subdued. So why not try the opposite for a while? Or try it for even just one figure?

Go big! Exaggerate! Be outright ridiculous! Put so much contrast in there you think people will be flabbergasted. Paint that OSL effect so brightly your viewers will need to wear shades. Exaggerate the action of your diorama story. Whatever you’ve been critiqued for in the past, try not only doing that thing, but dial that thing up to 11.

Then bring your crazy exaggerated piece along to the show. Put it in the contest. Bring it with some pieces you’ve worked on in your usual way. See which gets picked for judging. Take a look at the photos that are taken of all the entries and see which style looks more effective in photographs. Show the work of both kinds to your friends and your favourite teachers and see what kind of response you get.

If you have been painting for years and repeatedly gotten feedback about needing more contrast, or more vivid colour use, or more whatever else, what would it hurt to try at least one figure going to the other extreme? Maybe you’ll find out you need to dial it back just a little. Yeah, maybe your blending or fine detail painting will suffer a bit. But even if that is the case, you’ll probably be closer to where you need to be than you’re getting by slowing inching forward year by year.

Comparison Study

If you entered the MSP Open last year, I invite you to try this exercise. Go to the page and look at the contest picture entries from previous years. Find entries by other painters that were awarded the same level as you. Then scroll through and look at some of the entries that placed the next level up. So if you were awarded a certificate, look at a few other certificate winners, and the compare those pictures to bronze winning figures. Try to identify specific differences. Compare the level of contrast, the use of lining, whether and how the base materials are painted.

Dionne before afterComparison between different figures with different colour schemes requires a little more detective work, but is a valuable exercise that will improve your painting.

Try to find two or three specific things you want to do more like the people who placed a level higher than you did. Look at the pieces you plan to enter. Did you push yourself to do those things? If not, it’s not too late to go back to the hobby desk and try to incorporate them, or even try painting another piece or two.

(I suggest looking at other people’s entries at the same level because it’s harder to look at your own work objectively, but since it’s been a year, you might also try comparing your pieces from previous years to others as well.)

Read the Rules!

It is always a good idea to study up on the rules, and particularly the nature of each of the categories.

Try to keep those in mind as you create your entries and decide which category to put them in. Also use that information to temper your expectations. If you put a figure with an elaborate base into the Painters category, the base work is only considered for a small part of the overall score. Regardless of how awesome the base is, the greater emphasis in judging will be on the standard of the paint work. Conversely, if you put a fantastically painted piece in the Open category but it has only a small simple conversion, the paint work is a much smaller component of the judging in that category, and the figure may place a level one or two lower than it would have if assessed on the paint alone.

For Diorama, story is critical. It’s not about having a number of figures together on a base. It’s about telling a story and setting a scene. Make sure your figures are interacting with each other and with elements in the scene. Add elements to the scene that contribute to the story or add interest to areas that don’t have a lot going on. Condense the size of the base if you don’t need that much space to tell the story. (The size of a scene base is another case where being as ‘real’ as possible isn’t always the best answer in terms of catching and keeping viewer interest.)

Bronze Sophie trophyThe MSP Open has fantastic trophies! And great looking medals. (Unfortunately mine are currently packed away for renovations, so I don’t have pics of those.)

Lining (aka Blacklining)

This is an issue that often comes up in feedback sessions. The various areas of your miniature need to be well-defined for the viewer. This definition needs to be apparent at arm’s length as well as in close up viewing. Using a tool like lining to distinguish one section of a figure from another is particularly important when you have adjacent surfaces that are similar in value. So if you have a pale skin person with blond or white hair, you need a bit of a line around the face to help the viewer see that this area is skin, and that area is hair.

Darklining is not the only method to achieve that. You can use strong contrast in your shading and get a similar effect. You can make adjacent surfaces very different in value (dark skin, pale hair). Note that generally speaking shading done via washes alone will not be strong enough. You don’t need to use a stark black. You can use a dark version of the colour of one of your adjacent surfaces (use a darker colour of the darkest surface.)

Sometimes people seem to feel like darklining is unrealistic. In actuality, it often simulates a very real situation. Take a look at someone nearby or in a photo. Where their sleeve meets their arm or the hem of their pants overhangs their shoes, you will likely see a thin line of shadow. Darklining is a way to create that effect on a miniature. Even when it isn’t 100% realistic, it helps make a tiny gaming figure more ‘readable’ to the viewer.

It looks like there are number of tutorials on YouTube that will help you out if you want to know more about the nuts and bolts of how to paint lining on your figures.


You’ve probably been told you need it. Maybe you feel like you’re doing it, why can’t people see that? Or maybe you feel like it’s not realistic, why won’t people accept you want to paint in a more realistic way? Or maybe you accept that contrast is a good thing, but you just aren’t having much luck actually doing it. Whichever of the above best reflects your opinion, I have some blog posts for you!

More vs less contrastContrast! Try it!

First, an example of what more contrast actually looks like on the same figure.

Let’s talk about the issue of contrast vs. realism.

The way we think as we paint can make it harder to paint more contrast (includes additional examples of what more and less contrast look like on the same figures.)

And finally some hands on tips for painting with more contrast.

See you in a few weeks!

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