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In person conventions are back on the calendar, and with them many opportunities to enter painted figures in contests and shows. Online contest opportunities will continue for those unable to attend an event in person. I’ve been entering figures into online and offline contests and shows for years, and have also acted as a judge at several. I want to share some suggestions to help you show off your work to best advantage. Even if you’re not interested in contests, many of these tips are relevant to anyone looking to improve their work.
I also have an article that explains the different formats and terminology used in miniature contests. It includes links to upcoming events with miniature contests.
Elizabeth Beckley’s contest entries at the Atlanta Model Figure Show.
1. Build a Solid Foundation
Judges assess entries not just for painting quality, but also overall craftsmanship. Minor issues can make or break your chances in a top three contest. Imagine that the judges are considering two figures for third place. The pieces are fairly equal in painting skill, effectiveness of colour scheme, etc. The judges have to look for small things done better or worse. If they spot noticeable mould lines, a gap in a join, or some other kind of workmanship issue, that makes the choice for them. If the situation were choosing between a piece that was slightly better painted but has construction problems versus one that is well constructed but slightly less inspired in paint, the latter might win.
The importance of this varies some with category as well as with each contest, but the point I want to make is that if you’re looking to be competitive in contests, you need to practice your hobby skills as well as your pure paint skills. In an open show like the MSP Open this aspect is a smaller part of what is considered in the Painter category, but basic or egregious issues could still affect your top medal placement potential. It is a larger part of what is considered in the Open category, and is important for placing in the top three in the manufacturer categories.
Areas to consider:
We all hate ‘em. They’re a pain to deal with in every material. At a minimum you should remove pronounced mould lines or those that travel over prominent areas viewers will easily see. This would include on the face and areas of skin in general, and large smooth expanses like a cloak or robe. For the MSP Open, mould lines would not affect your ability to place Bronze, but start to be more of an issue for being awarded Silver or Gold.
Mould lines on a plastic figure coated with a layer of paint (left) and bare metal figure (right).
When you glue an arm or a head on a multipart figure, sometimes there is a gap at the join. So instead of the appearance of smooth flesh, you have a crevice at the shoulder or the elbow. These are best addressed prior to painting. Modelling paste works well for small gaps. You may need to use a two part putty like Greenstuff or Milliput to fill large gaps. Putties also add to the structural integrity of joins. You can use these same materials to fill gaps on pre-assembled figures. If you have a pre-assembled figure that has excess glue in the join areas, you can carefully chip it off with a hobby knife.
An assembly gap on a plastic figure. Metal figures can be even more problematic since different pieces may experience different levels of mould compression in casting.
I recommend using pins when you glue parts together, particularly on metal miniatures, and particularly for gaming miniatures. This increases the strength of the join and reduces the chances that the join will break during transit or handling. This is less of an issue for lighter weight plastic or resin miniatures.
It’s easiest and most efficient to complete all gap filling and assembly prior to beginning to paint, but sometimes that is not possible. When it is not, try to dry fit all the pieces to check that they go together as well as possible. Paint what you need to paint to be able to assemble. Be prepared to have to do a little gap filling and paint touchup after assembly.
It’s fairly common to attach a figure to a base via a pin in one or both feet (or its cloak or whatever part is touching the ground.) It’s also fairly common for this attachment to not be 100% flush, even if it looked like a tight fit when you did your dry fit test. This is another gap that needs to be addressed. If the feet or clothes that are supposed to be touching the floor appear to be floating above the earth, it breaks the illusion of the scene, as well as being a craftsmanship issue. You can use the same gap fillers as with figure assembly. It is worth filling the gap and doing a little repainting even if this occurs when gluing a fully painted figure to a fully painted base in the end stages.
I learned to plant the figure on solid ground early on, so I don’t have a lot of examples at hand. The figure in the above photo is pinned via the opposite foot. This foot was glued down, but has broken free of the glue and is floating. A photo of the solid footing version is included in the Category Divisions section below so you can compare.
2. Paint the Base!
Most basing materials need to be painted. Even if the sand or gravel you used on your base is a suitable colour of dirt or rock for your scene, you should paint it. The reason we add washes/shadows and drybrushing/highlights to figures is because they don’t really look three dimensional under standard lighting. We are simulating the effect that in-scale lighting would have on the figure. We need to paint the basing material for the same reason – so it looks in scale with the figure. Painting both the figure and the base also helps join them together as being a part of the same world. It gives you the opportunity to use some of the same colours and unify your colour scheme. Like if you used a dark blue or brown on your figure’s cloak, you could use the same colour as a wash on your stones or earth. I often use lighter colours I used in painting the flesh or leather for the lightest highlights when drybrushing stone or dirt.
(I learned this tip soon after I started painting so I don’t have a convenient example, but will try to add one as time permits.)
Materials like static grass, undergrowth, and leaves may not need to be completely painted, but they often still benefit from a little paintwork. For example, applying a wash on the grass with a shadow colour from your figure can help unify the scene or dull down bright grass that might compete for attention with your figure’s gritty colour scheme. Drybrushing the tips of the grass/vegetation can also contribute to your scene. You can use a light greenish-yellow if you want the grass to look healthy, or a brown or tan if you want it to look like it’s dying. Adding some paint to your basing materials helps you tell more of a story as well as looking more realistic. I recommend doing some tests on adding paint to your materials prior to assembling your contest entries. I’ve had some grasses and vegetation that resisted the paint a little and caused spatters. With these I paint them off of the piece and then glue them on once the paint has dried.
At the MSP Open, unpainted basing materials are a very common issue that we see with first-time entries. It’s not a deal breaker for placement at Certificate or Bronze, but it does affect consideration for Silver and Gold.
3. Clean up Your Act
Quick and even slapdash may be the order of the day in getting a figure to the game table quickly, but entries with a high degree of finish tend to place better in contests. This is particularly important in top three style contests where the discovery of an unpainted area or unplanned paint spatter or streaks can make the decision for a judge who is torn between two figures for a placement.
During the construction phase, check for excess glue, basing gravel drifting onto the base rim, and similar types of things that might look a little sloppy, and tidy these up as best you can. After the painting phase, carefully check the figure for stray streaks of the wrong colour paint, bits of primer showing through, or a small item you completely forgot to paint. (It happens. A lot!) Taking a photo of your figure from a few different angles can be very helpful to spotting those things.
4. Consistency Counts
People often think that use of a ‘flashy’ technique is required to do well in a miniature painting contest – something like freehand, source lighting, texturing, weathering, non-metallic metal (NMM). Those techniques can be good ways to demonstrate brush skills, creativity, and an understanding of light. And since so many people think of those as difficult or advanced techniques, they can certainly attract votes in popular vote contests.
In contests and shows judged by experienced painters, however, it isn’t always the case that you ‘need’ to use a technique like that. If you do try a flashy technique, the judges will assess how well you executed that technique/effect in addition to considering the overall painting skill you demonstrate on the piece. It’s also important to remember that the judges are looking at the figure as a whole. If you painted some jaw-dropping NMM on the metals but just a basecoat and a wash on the leather, both are factored into the judges’ assessment. Many competition painters have been in a situation of having spent hours and hours on the main parts of their piece only to run out of time and have to phone in a few areas, and it has made the difference in where they placed, or if they placed at all.
Another way to think of it is this – your figure isn’t being judged only on the single best part of it, or the single worst part of it. The judges are looking at it as a whole, both in terms of how well you convey the story and character of the figure(s), and kind of calculating an ‘average’ of your hobby and painting skills.
I entered the version on the left in a contest. I ran out of time before I could add wood grain texture to the staff. When I went back later to paint that in, I also realized that some areas did not have enough contrast, and I adjusted those, too. These were some sections of the non-metallic metal, and increasing the texture on the leather parts, which is most noticeable on the staff. The level of detail and finish on the staff does not match the rest of the figure. There is a close-up below. (Any differences in colour, as on the hair, is due to the photographs.)
In this close up of the staff you can see that I added both texture and also more contrast. Compare the shadows in the crevices and under downward facing curves in the before and after versions. The after fits better with the levels of contrast and detail on the rest of the figure. In MSP terms, the original version of this figure would probably have been awarded Gold level, but it’s possible that one or more of the judges might have judged it Silver quality based on the weaker areas.
In the MSP Open (and other show style contests), people are often surprised at which figure from their display that we choose to judge. Usually they expect us to judge a piece where they used a difficult technique that they struggled over. Sometimes we chose another figure than expected because we feel it comes together as a whole better, or that it displays your overall skills to better advantage. The fact that something felt simpler to paint doesn’t necessarily make of lower quality than something that felt really challenging. It may have felt simpler because you were using skills that you have more mastery over.
Note that painting a figure to completion or consistently throughout doesn’t mean that you should paint every area with the same amount of contrast, the same number of layers, etc. If you read the Focus section in my Mistletoe Goblin post, it gives some examples of making decisions to emphasize some sections of the figure and deemphasize others to create areas of focus. The basic idea is that you need to paint the boots or the belt pouches so they look finished and like real items that are part of the scene, but you only need to paint them enough for that. Then focus the bulk of effort and bright colours/contrast/interesting effects and so on in the key areas of attention, like the face.
Note that consistency is relevant to all levels of entries. The skin, pouches, and shield of this bugbear are painted with good contrast. Some other areas are painted decently but not quite to the same standard. The face isn’t all defined or interesting to look at, and there are a few other sections that are just flat basecoats. In MSP Open terms, the pouch and shield might be Silver level painting, but the face is Certificate level, and other areas are Bronze level. This would be awarded Bronze at best. (Award levels cited are for example purposes only.)
5. Read the Rules!
I know it sounds obvious. But ask just about anyone who’s entered contests for a while and they’ll have a story of how they or someone they know was disqualified from consideration for rules-related reasons. Misreading the rules can also result in entries being shifted into a different category than you expected. Read the rules before you begin working, and then read them again while you’re working. I’d go ahead and read them again just before the event, as well. It’s easy to misread something or confuse it with how the rules work in another contest.
Many contests tweak their rules from year to year, so even if you’ve entered that contest previously, it’s best to read this year’s rules to be certain you’re familiar with them. Unfortunately It is not uncommon for contests to take a while to upload the rules each year. All of these efforts are organized by volunteers and can take much more coordination with other entities than you might imagine, so delays are often unavoidable. If you need to make an early start on an entry, you may need to proceed as if the rules will be similar to the preceding year, and hope you can shift gears a little if something does change.
I’ve made rules-related goofs myself. Long ago Reaper ran a monthly contest on their forum. The rule at the time was that you could show multiple views of the figure, but each photo had to be uploaded individually; you should not combine them into one large picture. I combined, and I was disqualified. On another occasion, I entered a unit into the contest at Gen Con. I assumed the rules were the same as the previous year. When I arrived at the event I discovered the rules had been updated to require that units be submitted on a movement tray, and I found myself scrambling to buy something from the vender hall and paint it flat black with paper towels in order to be able to submit my entry.
Paper towel and black paint to the rescue!
Areas to look out for particularly in the rules are:
There may be a size limit for entries based on the available display space. Sometimes people with larger entries are asked to contact contest management in advance to check if there is room or reserve space for their entry. Remember that the size applies to all three dimensions. Sometimes the limitation is in place because of the height or width of display case shelves.
Many contests divide entries into different categories. These may be based on subject, size, number of figures, or other criteria. Make sure you understand the guidelines for a category you plan to enter as well as possible. One contest might consider a piece that depicts a victor with a subjugated victim at their feet a single figure and the victim is just scenery. Another contest might rule that the piece is composed of two figures so it can’t be entered in single figure. Be aware that most contests reserve the right to shift entries to more suitable categories or combine categories if fewer people enter a category.
Are the skeletons on the base scenery or characters? One contest might allow this in single figure, another might require it to be entered in diorama.
People are sometimes confused about which category to enter in the MSP Open at ReaperCon. The following includes some guidelines to consider when choosing your category. If the team judging your piece feels it is likely that would receive a higher level award if your entry is shifted to another category, they will shift it. (If you already have entries in the other category, they will not shift it.) You can see the entries from previous years by category and how they placed by looking through the galleries in the Painting Contest dropdown menu on the ReaperCon site.
There is an index of MSP Open questions, including specifics on categories and expanded information on the judging process, thoughts from judges, etc. on the Reaper forums.
Painter: The majority of the consideration is paint based – colour choices, success of paint application techniques, success of paint related effects, etc. Basing, conversion, and sculpting are considered in terms of presentation, workmanship, and creativity. 70% of the consideration is paint alone. However, it is certainly the case that adding some scenic elements to your piece gives you additional opportunities to show us your paint skill and make your piece much more creative! Creative and well-done basing and scenic efforts can also improve your chances to be considered for the manufacturer awards and special prizes.
Open: This category is for pieces that have been heavily converted and/or scratch sculpted. The gold plus standard here is a figure sculpted completely from scratch that is also expertly painted. A figure with a simple weapon or head swap on a basic base is not likely to place higher than bronze, regardless of how well painted. An elaborately constructed base is also unlikely to achieve high placement if the figure(s) on it are stock or only lightly converted. In Open, paint related elements are only 30% of the consideration. Workmanship, difficulty, and presentation are highly valued here.
Diorama: The focus here is on story. A simple piece with two figures telling a clear and evocative story may place higher than a complex scene with multiple figures if the interaction and story between them isn’t very clear. Basing, conversion, and overall workmanship are valued here, but if you can tell a great story with stock figures and scenic elements, that is great too!
Ordinance: Workmanship and painting skill are weighted fairly equally here. Weathering and evoking the appropriate environment for the vehicle are helpful to demonstrate these. Any figures that may be present are considered in the same way that as scenic items would be on a figure’s base in another category. The focus is on the painting, staging, and presentation of the vehicle itself.
Some contests have rules related to basing. Contests by gaming miniature companies may require bases of a particular size and shape for certain figures. Units may need to be entered on a movement tray. Plinths may or may not be allowed. In all cases there may also be guidelines of whether or not additional basing like trays and plinths is or is not considered in judging.
There was at least one year at Gen Con where several units were entered on paper plates. The contest required a movement tray so judges could safely transport the figures to and from the case for judging, but the tray itself was not considered in the judging. I heard about another contest where painters who customized their plinths who were disappointed to find that the plinth was not photographed or considered in the judging of the entry.
6. Don’t Forget Manufacturer and Special Awards!
Many convention contests and shows have a central structure for awards, but also have one or more supplemental awards. The supplemental awards are often sponsored by manufacturers, but some may be awarded for particular subjects or other factors. It’s always worth looking out for a manufacturer whose products you like. You’ll help them by showing off their figures, and you’ll have a chance at winning some prizes and recognition. I’ve been at many a competition where manufacturer contests were lightly entered, even when the manufacturers were offering generous prize support and/or cool trophies! That said, it is generally the case that higher value cash prizes attract more entries, particularly if it’s from a company that’s already established and many people may own some of their figures.
The medals at the front are the general awards for the MSP Open in 2019. All of the other trophies and items are special awards and prizes!
At ReaperCon, the main MSP Open is a show that is open to figures from all manufacturers. Reaper also sponsors top three trophies in several categories, including special awards for entries of Mouslings and awards for giant sized monsters, and there are additional manufacturer awards as well. The Atlanta figure show includes awards for best flat, best Napoleonic era, and best fantasy, among several others. Gen Con’s contest usually includes several manufacturer awards.
The special awards table at the Atlanta Model Figure Show.
Figures in this Post
Savage Beauty by Black Sun Miniatures
Beorogg Black Rime Frost Giant Jarl is available in plastic or metal.
I don’t know the dwarf and chibi figures
Torlan the alligator man
Blacksmith is available in plastic or metal.
Frost Giant Queen
The Bugbear is available in plastic or metal.
The Heresy Inspectors
The sorceress is out of production.