The War on Christmas… Colours

The Patreon supporter PDF version of this article includes high res photographs and better formatting. Ko-fi tips are another way to help keep this content freely available to everyone.

Using complementary colours together can create contrast and colour harmony. Red and green make up a major complementary colour pair, but their frequent use in Christmas themed artwork and decorations makes them tricky to use for non-holiday themed purposes. Let’s look at ways to kick thoughts of Santa and pine trees to the curb so you can harness the power of this potent colour combination.

Seeing red front fullPainted December 2007.

Even apart from the subject, the colours in the above vignette include pretty much all of the elements that will make Christmas jump to many people’s minds:

* The classic Christmas red is highly saturated, mid value to somewhat dark in value, and either pure red or a slightly warm red.

* The classic Christmas green is highly saturated, somewhat dark in value, and typically either pure green or a slightly cool green.

* The colour that most frequently accompanies the Christmas red and green pairing is white, either as snow and/or fluffy white fur. Rich golden tones are also often used as accents in Christmas scenes – on bells, gold trim and jewelry, gift wrapping, etc.

IMG 0273It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas is hogging these colours.

It is very challenging to paint a non-Christmas figure using a classic Christmas red in combination with a classic Christmas green, and almost impossible to avoid a festive spirit if your figure or scene also includes snow on the base or a lot of white elsewhere on the figure. But be of good cheer, because there are still a lot of other ways we can access the complementary colour power of red and green!

I also have an article with tips for painting red and painting green.

I digitally sampled the colours from the photos of several of the miniatures included below. I was surprised by some of the results. I know that I painted these figures with highly saturated red paints, but the sampled colours look muted or shifted a little from the true red paint colours I used, and sometimes also different from how they appear to my eye in the photograph. Some of the differences may be due to how various camera software processed the colours. I suspect some of it is due to the effect of painting with layers and glazes. The light and shadow colours that are layered over the main foundation colour create variations of that colour. I often glaze thin coats of alternate colours (purples, for example) into the shadows of reds, which subtly alters the appearance of the shadow colours. Some of the differences are also likely due to the fact that digital colour sampling is a simplification of the complexity of colours, though I think it can still be a useful tool to use to identify and interpret colours.

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Family Ties

Colour families are quite broad. The overall colour green and the overall colour red encompass a lot of variations on each of those colours. English speakers tend to think of pink as a different colour than red, but they’re both members of the same colour family. In classic colour theory, magenta is also part of the red colour family. So there are a lot of other reds you can use with a lot of other greens and still get all the benefits of using complementary colours, without adding making anyone think of candy canes and plum pudding.

IMG 0274Members of the red colour family.

IMG 0276Members of the green colour family.

I used celery green with a soft magenta pink to paint Nemesra. I chose to paint the jewelry silver, but this red-green pairing diverges so far from Christmas red and green that it would not have been a problem if I’d wanted to paint it gold.

Dancegirl front fullPainted February 2017.

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Both versions of the colour scheme on Tristan the Loremistress use a similar colour scheme approach – Burgundy red on the bodice, a light value and not at all festive green on the skirt, and an earthier green on the dragon. The red and greens are so far away from Christmas colours that there was no risk of Christmas spirit by using golden tones for the hair, jewelry, and the dragon’s throat scales.

Tristan front comp crLeft: painted April 2021. Right: painted May 2017.

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You don’t necessarily need to shift both the green and the red. Shifting one can be enough to avoid a Christmas feel.

The shield on this figure is classic pine green, but none of the other colours fall into classic Christmas colour tropes. The green of her equipment is more of a summery green. The red is more of a red-orange with even more orange in the highlighting and texture.

Dshield face fullPainted July 2011.

IMG 0318Okay this figure might be more orange and green than red and green, but it would work as well with rusty reds.

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Tone it Down

The green and red colours on the above examples are fairly saturated. Another way to use red and green together more easily is to use less saturated versions of one or both colours.

The red on this figure is the kind of full saturation red used for Santa’s suit. The greens are desaturated, even sickly, and do not bring Christmas to mind at all.

Fathom front fullPainted August 2020. My character in the Reaper Errant RPG.

IMG 0319This is one of the figures where I did use a saturated red as the midtone, but the colours sampled from the photograph appear less saturated.

Most of these goblins are painted with a complementary red – green colour scheme, with the other colours used being browns and blacks. The greens are khaki or a little greyed out. The reds are likewise dulled down, pastel, or closer to red-orange.

Goblins combo full crPainted in 2013.

The red on the loincloth of this orc could easily be used on a Christmas figure, but the green of the skin is very desaturated, and the combination does not bring Christmas to mind, even though there’s white included via the skull and despite the fact that his boots have fur trim. (The composition placement of the colours on this figure is less than ideal, but the colours themselves are a non-holiday type of red – green.)

Orc spear frontPainted in 2013.

IMG 0320This is another example where I used true red in the midtone, but the digital colour samples appear less saturated.

The figure below uses both a saturated red-green pair, and also a somewhat desaturated magenta and khaki green pair. This is one of the first figures I painted where I was trying to add a bit of an ‘artistic’ statement. I don’t think I succeeded in that, but I did use red and green together without making anyone think of Christmas.

Ladydarkness face fullPainted June 2005.

IMG 0321The top row of colours are sampled from the roses. I painted these with true red paints, with orange and yellow for highlights. The digital samples appear less saturated than the paint colours I used. The second row of colours is sampled from the rose stems and marble floor. The third and fourth row are sampled from the colours used on the dress and cloak.

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Context Helps

The context of the figure includes the nature of the pose, and the way that clothing and other items are sculpted. The scene you put the figure(s) in, whether a simple base or an elaborate diorama, also creates context. I think one of the reasons we can end up with unintentionally festive figures is putting too much faith into the impact of context differences. The further that the context of your figure /scene is from anything Christmasy, the easier it will be to use true red and green. However, the association between Christmas red and green is so strong that context alone isn’t always enough to be able to safely use the colours. It would be a challenge to paint saturated red clothing or armour on a figure with a luxurious white (or even grey) beard and not bring Santa to mind, even if that figure is a weapon-wielding dwarf or barbarian.

This little dragon is painted classic Christmas red, and the only other non-neutral colour on the figure is green. The combination works for a few reasons. The horns and plates are ivory-tan, not white-grey. The green on the eyes is more of a Spring green. The green on the dragonfly is similar to Christmas greens, but it’s got enough blue in it to shift it a little away from classic Christmas greens. It also helps that there is nothing Christmasy in the context of this figure. Christmas is in Winter, and we don’t see dragonflies in Winter. And the figure is a little dragon, a creature not traditionally associated with Christmas. (Admittedly my Christmas tree decorations feature a lot of dragons, but I’m a dragon-loving nerd!)

R1 front fullPainted August 2017.

IMG 0327I painted Rocky with saturated reds that I highlighted with salmon and shaded with purples. The digital colour samples look less saturated than the paints I used.

Context can work the other way, of course. I think it would be possible to paint the figure on the left to look like a non-holiday figure with little or no conversion. (It wouldn’t hurt to smooth the points on the leaves and maybe shave off the berries or paint the cluster to appear more like a flower.) It would be challenging to repurpose the figure on the right to look like anything other than a Christmas elf without more extensive conversion. The fur trim and the shape of the hat are too tied to Santa’s suit to shift perceptions with colour alone.

Xmas elf comboLeft: painted November 2017. Right: painted December 2016.

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Make it a Party

Another way to diffuse the spirit of Christmas out of the red – green colour combo is to add additional colours. Two of the main colours in the colour scheme of this diorama are pine green and red. The red has a touch more orange than the usual Christmas red, but the real reason the scene doesn’t make you think of the holidays is that the two other main colours are yellow-orange and brown.

Cloak front widePainted September 2010.

This little scene features bright Christmas red and green. There’s also a lot of white, and a somewhat Santa style hat! But there still is no Christmas in sight. This scene is painted with a tetradic colour scheme that uses two sets of colour complements: red – green, and blue – orange. (The cat and the belts are both orange leaning browns.) Context also helps here, of course. The subject of a Smurf, and the the red and green are both are used on vegetation that grows in seasons other than Winter. (This scene is also a great example of why it improves our work when we paint with more contrast and use lining.)

Smurf front fullPainted November 2003. The ‘plinth’ is the lid from a cat treat container.

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Put it All Together

The more of these tricks that you use, the easier it is to avoid the pine-scented air of Christmas. Here are a few more examples of different red – green colour scheme figures.

This one uses all of the tricks. Neither the reds nor the greens used are very similar to the traditional holiday versions. The red on the skin is quite desaturated, and the red on the wings is both very dark and desaturated. The green is a noxious, neon green. The bone isn’t very white. The purple of her equipment is an additional colour that is not at all Christmasy. The context of the sculpt and the scene it has been placed in has nothing to do with Christmas.

IMG 0244Painted October 2011.

There’s nothing especially Christmas in the context of this figure, but I think it’d be possible to accidentally stray into Christmas territory if the hat and skirt were painted more of a true red and if the skin was a more saturated green, and especially if it had a snow rather than a grass base. Using a desaturated green on the skin, and magenta for the cloth avoids any hint of Christmas. 

Pg gob front 1000Painted August 2020.

This one is interesting because I think my colour choices skirt very close to traditional Christmas red and green, but just managed to avoid it. Both of the colours have a lot of blue in the shadows. The highlights of the red are a bit more pastel rather than reddish orange. The context of the scene has nothing to do with the holidays, and there are no contextual elements like a peaked hat, wide belt, or flowing beard that might make Santa pop into someone’s mind.

Dionne 2 fullPainted March 2010.

IMG 0325The digital samples of the red appear to be shifted a little more to the pink side of red than the colours I recall using. I did use a pale caucasian skin colour like the lightest sample for the highlights. I like using salmon to highlight red, but pinky-orange skin tones are another great option.

This last figure features a red and green colour scheme, with white and gold as the accent colours. The red is a dusty pink, and the green is a khaki, both very different from their Christmas versions. The white is more of a cream, much warmer than the usual holiday fur trim white. The context of a desert landscape complete with cactus is a far cry from the wintry North Pole, and there is nothing in the elements of the sculpt itself that brings to mind elves or jolly Santa.

Perdita front reeditPainted March 2010.

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Some Quick Mixing Tips

If you don’t have a lot of paints, it is likely that the paints you do have are more saturated versions of red and green. Try these tips to mix versions of those colours that aren’t as festive. (I do recommend getting a magenta paint. There are colours you can mix from magenta that you can’t mix from red.) After you finish a painting session, try some of these mixing tips with any paint you have left over on your palette. Experimenting with colours like this is a great way to get more comfortable mixing and using colour! 

* Add white
* Add grey
* Add black
* Add brown
* Add dark blue (or medium blue mixed with some black)
* Add yellow (mix in a touch of white if you don’t want to shift something too yellowish)
* Mix a little black into yellow to make a not at all Christmassy green
* Mix a bit of your red into your green, and/or a bit of your green into your red

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Figures Featured in this Article

Mrs. Claus
 is from Hasslefree, their web store is temporarily closed
Naughty Waggamaeph
 is out of production, it may occasionally become available on Noble Knight.
Nemesra is available in Bones plastic or metal.
Tristan, Loremistress
 was a special edition in metal, and part of Bones 5, and should release to retail in the future.
Female Warrior with Shield is available in metal.
Churrusina, Hellborn Sorcerer is available in metal.
Pathfinder Goblin Warriors are available in Bones plastic or metal.
Orc Spearman is available in Bones plastic or metal.
Lady of Darkness is out of production.
Annoyed Rocky is available in Bones plastic.
Winter Elf is available seasonally during some 12 Days of Reaper.
Christmas Elf is available seasonally during some 12 Days of Reaper.
Franc Jeaunoir is available in metal.
Vendel Noblewoman is out of production.
Druss Darkblighter is available in metal.
Goblin from out of production Warhammer Quest boxed set.
The hissing cat is available in Bones USA or metal.
Harpy Supervillain is available in metal.
Goblin with Bow is available in Bones plastic.
Dionne is from Hasslefree, their web store is temporarily closed.
This version of Perdita Ortega is out of production.

The 15-25 Paint Colours You Need (The Short Version)

The Patreon supporter PDF version of this article includes better formatting and high res pictures of the swatches to make it easier to match the colour suggestions to paints you own. Ko-fi tips are another way to help keep this content freely available to everyone.

If you’re short on space or money, if you’re packing to paint on the go, what 15-20 colours of paint are most useful to have to paint a wide variety of miniature figures? This is one of the most common questions I see in discussion groups, and I’m finally going to take a stab at answering it.

IMG 0296 2

This article is my short version answer to the question. I have been working on a longer article that includes information about colour theory and mixing tips, options for artist paint brand paints that are well-suited to figure painting, and more colour swatches and mixing examples. But since many of us need to get packing for ReaperCon and NOVA Open, I figured I’d better go with a short version for now! This article includes specific suggestions for three brands of miniature paint, and pictures of colour samples you can use to make choices from other brands you may own.

I have another article with more information on the hobby materials you need to paint on the go, and how to safely transport those.

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What are YOUR Needs?

Your specific needs trump the advice of any other artist. Are you still working on your contest entry or worried it might get damaged in transit? Bring the key colours you used to paint it. Do you have a set of colours you’re using to paint your army? Pack those and some of your army figures to bring with you on vacation.

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Saturation versus Opacity

The core of a compact paint set should be comprised of good mixing colours – colours you can mix with one another and obtain a wide range of other colours.  The best mixing paints are vibrant colours composed of just one pigment. The problem is that many of those optimal mixing pigments are inherently transparent. Paints created with a transparent pigment are at least somewhat transparent, even if the paint maker adds a lot of pigment.

Most miniature painters prefer opaque paints. After all, it’s easier to thin a paint down than to make it more opaque. Paint companies create more opaque versions of a colour by mixing more opaque pigment(s) with the transparent one. More opaque pigments include white, black, and earth tones (browns and ochres.) Mixing those in dulls a colour down. They also add hidden variables, since you can’t always tell which of the more opaque pigments might have been added.

Paints mixed with multiple pigments have different properties than ones mixed with a single/pure pigment. The colours included in a multiple pigment mix are not always obvious. These hidden variables can create unexpected results that differ from what colour mixing guides like colour theory wheels suggest you should get when mixing two colours of paint together. You can mix the widest range of colours with a vibrant single pigment version of the colour.

I’ll discuss this conundrum and some of the artist paint answers to the problem in a bit more detail in the long version of this article. For now, my advice is to split the difference a little. For each colour I suggest, pick a paint that is pretty vibrant and intense in colour, but which also has coverage you can work with. Try to avoid colours that look like they have a lot of white or black mixed in. Colours with a lot of white or black will mix duller colours than those with less. You will have white and black in your kit, so you can add those yourself as needed to dull colour mixes down, but you can’t take them out of your premixed colours to brighten them up.

I talked about most of these colour choices and did some mixing experiments to test colour options on one of my Beyond the Kit videos. In most of my experiments the vibrant but more opaque versions of colours produced mixes that were pretty close in hue and vibrancy to the pure but transparent versions. The colours named Clear are Reaper’s version of pure single paint colours and would be the optimal mixing options for Reaper paints. Paint designer Anne Foerster put Clear in the name because these are fairly transparent colours. On stream, I tested some more opaque paint colours that were close to the same colours to see what the mixes looked like, and there were fewer differences than I expected.

The following is one of my mixing tests. The far right paint is Clear Red. You can see that it is pretty transparent. The other four are red Reaper paints I thought were similar in hue. The second from the right paint is a little transparent, as well. The other three are more opaque. I mixed each of these paints with Clear Yellow to see what kinds of oranges they would mix. There are some slight differences, but they all mixed a pretty vibrant orange.

Red test

Sometimes you have more of a decision to make. This example tests some options for magenta in the Reaper paint line. Clear Magenta is at the bottom. The two closest colours are Violet Red and Pale Violet Red. Both clearly have other colours mixed in with the magenta. I combined each of these with Clear Yellow to test what kinds of oranges and reds they would mix. Then I mixed each with Clear Blue to test the purple mix. The Clear Magenta created the most vibrant mixes for all of the colours. The Violet Red paint (middle) looks like it includes both magenta and red pigments. It mixed vibrant reds and oranges, but a duller colour of purple. The Pale Violet Red (top) looks like it is made from magenta and a fair amount of white pigment. The colours mixed with it are a bit washed out looking in comparison to the other two options.

Magenta test

So when you have options like that, which should you choose? Think about how you’ll use that colour and what will best suit your needs. For colours like the red, I would choose one of the more opaque options as I would find it easier and quicker to paint with, and the choice doesn’t have a big effect on my mixing options. For the magenta, I would think about that colour’s purpose for me. Is it primarily a mixing colour? I’d pick the Clear Magenta. Do I care more about opacity? I’d pick the Violet Red. My set suggestion includes vivid purple and orange paints, so I don’t have to worry about being able to mix the most vibrant secondary colours. I would not choose the Pale Violet Red, because it has a lot of white in it. I’ll have more mixing options if I include Clear Magenta in my set and mix white it to it myself when I want a similar colour.

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Beware Web Store and Digital Colour Samples!

If you shop for paint in an online store, there is usually a coloured square or circle intended to show you the colour of the paint. You may also find all of the digital colour samples for a paint range displayed as a chart. Sometimes people put together spreadsheets or even apps/programs to compare the digital samples of various brands to try to find colour matches between different brands. Do not trust these digital colour samples or any colour matches based on them to be accurate! At all. Ever. Some samples may be only a little different from what the actual paint colour looks like, but often these digital samples appear very different than the actual paint colour.

Looking at a bottle of paint in a store in person doesn’t give you all of the useful information about a paint colour either, but it’s whole lot more accurate than relying on webstore sample swatches.

What if you have no way to shop in person? Review the digital colour samples in a paint range chart and make a short list of options for each colour that might fit the criteria I suggest in this article. Look for a company or fandom discussion group for that brand of paint, and ask members who own the paint for feedback on whether red X is brighter than red Y and so on.

You can also try image searches to see if you can find any hand painted swatches for the paint you’re looking at. Try searches like ‘brand-name paint swatches’ or ‘brand-name paint samples’. You’ll get lots of hits for the digital swatches, but scan through the image results looking for ones that look messy and homemade. Here’s is an example with Games Workshop Contrast paints, and one for Vallejo Game Color so you can see what I mean by messy and homemade looking. You may not be able to find what you need, but it’s worth trying.

I have included swatches for the three standard miniature paint brands I own below. Those brands are Reaper, P3, and N-Paint.

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Don’t Panic!

Between what I wrote above or comments you might have seen about pure pigment paints online, you might be stressing out about picking the ‘perfect’ mixing colours, or thinking about whether you need to toss out your miniature paints and buy art store paints. Don’t! This is not a pass/fail test. You can ease into using a compact set of mixing colours and try it out for a while, and then decide if you want to refine your mixing set and try some different paint brands. Start by looking through the paints you already own for colours similar to what I suggest below. If one of the colours you pick doesn’t mix as well as you expected, you just pick out another version of it to try next time. 

You don’t need the optimal perfect colours to paint a great looking miniature! I painted this figure with a set of colours I threw together at a convention. It won the Crystal Brush qualifier at CMON Expo, and a gold medal at the MSP Open.

Prom front 638

Here is the set of colours I used. I don’t think any of these other than the black and white are in the Reaper examples of my suggested colour list below. A non-optimal set means you can’t mix as many versions of some colours; it doesn’t mean that any miniature you paint with that set will look like total crap.

Promenade palette reedit

Be aware that no set of miniature paints is going to allow you to mix every other colour that exists in the real world or in other paint colours. It’s tricky to put together a set of artist paints that does. There are multiple blue pigments, and multiple yellow pigments. You cannot mix the same green from any given combination of blue and yellow. I’ll have more information and examples of this in the long version article, just be aware that sometimes the limitations could be the paint colours, your mixing experience and expertise is not the only factor.

If you are new to colour mixing, I suggest that you do not try to mix an exact colour from a photo (or life, or your imagination, or a paint you left at home.) Aim to mix a colour that fills your need rather than an exact match to something. Are you painting blond hair? You need to mix a colour that looks like some shade of blond hair. You do not need to mix the exact same shade of hair as Chris Hemsworth as Thor. Mixing to match specific colours is a great exercise to improve your colour mixing skills. It is a recipe for frustration if you’re just starting to practice colour mixing and all you want to do is slap some paint on a mini.

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My Suggested Colour Palette

Finally we get to what you came here for – the colours!

I am including specific suggestions for the three brands that I own – Reaper, P3, and N-Paint. For the Reaper colours, I tried to include only paints that are available for purchase at the time of writing for the sake of readers who might need to purchase paints. So my suggestions do not include promotional or out of production colours, and also do not include any of the paints from the Pathfinder paint sets, since licenses do not last forever. If you own some of the paints I did not include, there may be some excellent candidates to use in a compact set paint among them. My P3 paints are from the original release of 60 many years ago, and I am missing at least two. I do not know if any colours have been changed or removed from that original lineup. Additional colours have been released that I was unable to assess. Many of my P3 paint bottles do not have product codes. Hopefully the names have not been changed since original release. The N-Paint line is produced by Nocturna and I received the paints through their Kickstarter a few years back.

I am also including pictures of my bottle swatches for each colour. Hopefully this will allow you to look through whatever paints you own or have available to purchase to try to find something similar.

Most of my bottle swatches include three components:

* The most opaque/intense colour square is a thick application of paint intended to show the hue of the colour in the bottle. Artists call this the mass tone.

* The small stripe is a single stroke of paint straight from the bottle. This is applied over some of the printing on the label to give me an idea of the opacity of the paint.

* The transparent rectangle is what the paint looks when thinned down with a little water/medium. This shows you what artists call the undertone of the paint. It can give you a lot more information about the colour than the paint straight from the bottle. If you look at the blue and purple examples below, most of the paints are quite dark straight out of the bottle. Thinning the paint down and applying it over white allows you to more easily see variations in the colours and how vibrant (or not) they are. I recommend you try this yourself with a piece of white paper while making decisions about which paints to include in your compact set.

IMG 0298

These are not perfectly colour corrected photos! And you’re probably not viewing them on a colour corrected screen anyway. The colour in these photos is a lot closer to true than digital colour swatches, but what you see on your screen is not an exact representation of the colours. Each swatch photo includes a certified colour corrected grayscale card, The background of the card and the white and grey rectangles are true neutral versions of those colours. 

I want to be clear that I have not tested the compact set mixing properties of every one of these colours individually or as a set. Doing more mixing and testing is what is slowing down the long version of this article. I also don’t paint a lot of miniatures with a set of paints like this, so my core suggestions are not the tried and true colours of my own experience. I have 800-900 paints, and I make use of them in my day-to-day painting. That’s why I have avoided answering this question for so many years! However, I have been training in traditional art painting using small sets of mixing colours for some years now, and I have regularly painted miniatures with limited colour schemes, so my suggestions are based on relevant knowledge. If you’re a Reaper paint user, I also recommend joining Anne Foerster’s Patreon and videos for a lot more information about Reaper paints and how to mix with them.

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The Core Colour Options


A true white paint. The vast majority of white paints use the same pigment, so there’s no wrong answer. Just grab the white paint you most enjoy using for mixing. Some whites may be a little more transparent or opaque depending on the binder to pigment ratio. Whites that are gloss or semi-gloss in finish may look brighter than those with a matte finish when painted out, but it’s more important to have a white paint that you enjoy using to mix other colours.

White swatch cr

White label

Pure White is the most pigmented of the Reaper options so I’d recommend that if you want to use a Reaper paint, but if you don’t have it, any true white is fine.

Do not choose an off-white as your core mixing white paint. You need a true white. Off-whites are great colours, and sometimes they’re easier to mix with. If you have extra space in your set and you like using an off-white, add it as a bonus paint, but do not choose one for your core mixing white paint.

In the photos below, the paint in the centre is Pure White. To the left is Vampiric Pallor, which has a slight green tinge, and on the right is Linen White, which as a touch of yellow. I love ‘em both, but if space is at a premium I’m going to bring white and mix in a little bit of green or yellow to make my own off-white.

Off white swatch


There are several black pigments that a company might use to produce their black paint. One black may be a little warmer or cooler in colour temperature than another. One might be more opaque or less dominant in mixes. If you only have one, choice made. If you have a few options, choose the one you most enjoy combining with other paints to make colour mixes rather than the one you think looks best when painted out in a flat coat of paint.

Some paint lines may also include chromatic blacks or near blacks. These are colours dark enough to appear black, but which may include pigments other than black. In general painting use, I often use a really dark purple or blue instead of black for mixing my shadow colours. If I want to keep my set as compact as possible, I will use black as my dark colour mixer and add a little blue or purple to customize it. If I have space for a few extra bottles, I might also include some of my favourite shadow mixing paints.

If you look at the three Reaper black paints below, you can see that there is a slight variation between them. Dragon Black on the left is slightly warmer, and Solid Black on the right is slightly cooler. I believe Anne Foerster has said that both have touches of other pigments. I have not encountered problems mixing with these, but if you want to ensure that the black you choose is made from a single black pigment, go with Pure Black in the centre.

Black swatch cr


Try to choose a sunny yellow – one that isn’t shading towards either green or orange. 

Yellow swatch cr

Yellow label

The three bottles in the centre photo below are better choices. The paints on the far left and far right are more yellow-orange. If you have space for some additional paints in your compact set, you could also include a yellow-orange, since it will mix somewhat different colours than the sunny yellow.

Yellow swatch2 cr


Look for a bright firetruck kind of red rather than a red that has a touch of pink or purple to it. Thin it out and check the undertone.

Red swatch cr

Red label


Is the blue-red-yellow colour theory right? Or is it the cyan-magenta-yellow? Why not both? You can mix different colours with magenta than you can with the bright red suggested above. Try mixing both of these with the blue you choose and check out the difference in the purples. Both purple mixtures are useful, but different. I would probably pick either of the two paints on the end over the Reaper options in the centre, since they offer a better compromise between opacity and true magenta hue. I discussed the Reaper options more in the Saturation vs Opacity section above.

Magenta swatch cr

Magenta label


This colour is a little trickier. If you’re looking for bright, vivid colours, you may think something like a royal blue is the best option. Almost all miniature paint blues (and craft paint, and economy paint) are probably mixed with a version of the phthalocyanine blue pigment. Phthalo is a very intense and vivid colour, but it may not appear that way to you straight out of the bottle, since it is also fairly dark in value.

The centre paint below is Reaper’s Clear Blue, which is likely composed of only phthalocyanine blue pigment. If you thin the blue candidates you have out with a bit of water and apply the paint over white paper, you should be able to judge them better. In the examples below, the second from the right blue has more white added, and it isn’t quite as vivid when thinned down. The colour on the far right looks to me as if it may include a little black pigment, and also isn’t quite as vivid. Paints that look more like the second, third, or fourth from the left are more optimal choices, but any of these are worth trying as your mixing blue.

Blue p swatch cr

Blue p label

Cyan (or Some Other Blue)

The issue with the cyan-magenta-yellow colour theory system for painters (as opposed to printing) is that there isn’t really a single pigment that corresponds to the colour cyan. Phthalocyanine blue is the one most often recommended. You may see paints named cyan or primary blue in both art brands and miniature paint brands, but these are usually a mixture of phthalocyanine blue and white pigments. You already have paints made from both of those pigments in your set, so you don’t need to take up space with a paint that is a combination of the two.

There are several other blue pigments, and it is useful to have more than one in a compact mixing set of colours. Unfortunately, I suspect most miniature paint lines use only phthalocyanine blue pigment. My choice would be to buy an art store brand paint made with the pigment PB29, traditionally called Ultramarine Blue. It is a very popular choice for as the second blue in a split primary palette for traditional artists, and mixes different hues of green and purple than the phthalocyanine blue. (There are a couple of miniature paint brands that include pigment information on their paints. Kimera Kolors has a PB29 paint in its Colors of Nature expansion set, which may go on individual sale at some point. The Scale Artist line includes two ultramarine blues that are a mix of PB29 and PV19.)

If you prefer to choose from miniature paints you own, look for a blue that is as different in hue as possible to phthalocyanine blue. It will likely be a mixture of pigments, but will hopefully give you different mixing options.

In the swatches below, the second from the left is pure phthalocyanine blue. The far left is an artist paint ‘cyan’, which is also phthalocyanine blue that has been mixed with white/white opacifiers. The far right is an artist paint Ultramarine Blue made with PB29. It looks even more strikingly different than the others in person. Second from the right is the Reaper painted named Ultramarine Blue, which clearly has more in common with the phthalocyanine blues than the one made with PB29.

Blue cyan swatch cr

Blue cyan labelLAG is my bottle label acronym for Liquitex Acrylic Gouache, which is not traditional gouache but an acrylic formulation similar to miniature paint.

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Secondary Colours

You can mix versions of purple, green, and orange with the core colour selections above, but if you have the space, I recommend including bottles of the secondary colours. One reason is for convenience’s sake. The other is that there are unique pigments for each of these colours, which gives you additional options for colour mixes.


Dioxazine purple is a common purple pigment. The art brand paints I have that were made with this pigment look pretty similar to Reaper’s Clear Purple, which is third from the right in the swatches below. This is quite a dark value purple straight out of the bottle, but if you thin it down and paint it over white paper, you can see the vibrancy of the colour better. The two options on the right probably have some black mixed in, and the two paints to the left likely have white mixed in, but if something like one of those is all you have in your collection, it would still be useful to add to your compact set.

Purple swatch cr

Purple label


The vivid orange colour of the Clear Orange third from the left is the kind of colour you’re looking for. The example on the far left is more of a red-orange.

Orange swatch cr

Orange labelThe P3 orange on the right that I forgot to turn around for the label pictures is Khador Red Highlight.


There are a relatively small number of green pigments in comparison to other colours, and most of them are not the kinds of green we commonly see in nature. It is likely that most or all green miniature paints are mixed from several pigments. Many art brand greens are also mixtures of multiple pigments. Many traditional artists include mixed pigment greens on their palettes for the sake of convenience, and since many things we paint on miniatures are green, we may want to do the same.

As it’s relatively simple to dull colours down, I would still recommend choosing colours on the more vivid side. Another option is to pick one or two green paints that you know you use a lot and like using.

In the swatches below, the green in the centre is an example of phthalocyanine green. (Phthalocyanine green and phthalocyanine blue are in the same chemical family, but are two separate pigments.) The paints to either side of it are likely mixes with other colours, but are examples of colours you could include in your set if that’s what you have available.

Green 2 swatch cr

Green 2 labelClear Phthalocyanine Green was a limited edition paint, and is not currently available for sale. I tried to exclude unavailable paints from my recommendations, but this is the only miniature paint I have that is an example of the purest form of this colour.

The phthalocyanine type greens above are very cool greens, with notes of blue. You will find it useful to also have a warmer green with touches of yellow in it. If I had to choose only one, I could go with something like the greens below and mix cooler greens with my primary colours when I need them. The centre paint is Clear Green. The Clear (and Oxide) colours are Reaper’s equivalent of single pigment paints, so this should be a good mixing colour. It is pretty transparent, though, so I might choose one of the other options for convenience’s sake.

Green 1 swatch cr

Green 1 label

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Earth Tones

Ochres and iron oxides found in the ground were likely the first pigments humans ever used. Most modern paints are mixed with synthetic versions of these colours. They are stable, inexpensive, and opaque, so it is my guess that all miniature paint lines include paints made from oxide pigments. While it is possible to mix browns and skin tones with just the core colours I suggested above, it’s a whole lot easier to do with earth tones. Many traditional painters include these on their palettes, and I recommend that you do, as well. The Reaper Oxide colours are their equivalent to single pigment versions of these colours.

Pbr7 Siennas blog 300All of these Daniel Smith watercolour paints are mixed with the same pigment – PBr7, one of the natural oxides.

Pigment/paint makers can manipulate both natural and synthetic oxides to obtain a wide variety of colours. Burnt umber and raw umber are two different colours made from the same pigment. Heating the pigment used to produce raw umber changes its properties in a way that turns it into a different colour. So when you look at the samples of the oxide colours below, you’re not necessarily looking to match a colour exactly, just for something in the ballpark.

I demonstrated how to mix skin tones with earth tones in one of my Beyond the Kit videos.

Yellow Ochre/Oxide

You can see a few examples of yellow oxide type colours below. I would try to avoid something like the paint second from the right, which looks like it might include either white and/or standard yellow.

Oxide yellow swatch cr

Oxide yellow label

Oxide Red

Look for a rich rusty red.

Oxide red swatch cr

Oxide red label

Brown Oxide

Some traditional brown oxide paints can be a little dull in colour. I would look for a somewhat more vibrant miniature paint version for a compact kit. You can easily make duller/darker mixtures by adding grey or black. (Try mixing this with the purples I suggested above for an interesting dark colour.) The paint to the far left in the example below looks like it might include yellow oxide as well as black or grey. The far right and second from the left are workable options, but I think something more like the four in the middle would be a better choice.

Oxide brown swatch cr

Oxide brown label

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Utility Products

If you want to be able to paint figures from start to finish using your compact set, you may need a few products in addition to paint. You can buy dropper bottles and pour these products into them if the containers they came in are too large for on the go painting. This list is more meant as a reminder to people who like to use these products to include them in their paint set, it’s not intended to imply that you need to include all of these in your set. If you don’t have or use all of these, or you don’t even know what they all are, don’t worry about it.


Brush on primer allows you to prime miniatures that need it wherever you paint. Reaper sells it in white, black, and grey, and other companies make this as well.


Medium is the clear acrylic binder part of paint. There are a lot of different options available from art store brands and miniature paint companies alike. It is useful to dilute washes and glazes to make them more transparent. Reaper’s equivalent product to this is Brush-On Sealer.

Specialty Additives

Do you like to add flow improver to paint for painting details? Are you traveling to a dry climate where you might need drying retarder? These products are also produced by a variety of manufacturers, and one or both of them are often added to commercial medium mixes.


Many sealers are essentially the same as medium. Gloss is more protective than matte, but both are essentially a clear coat of paint. Both gloss and matte can also be painted over areas to smooth surface imperfections prior to applying paint. Gloss can also be used for some quick effects like making eyeballs look wet or a patent leather effect.

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For Your Convenience

The rest of the paints in your set should be colours that make your life a little easier (particularly if you haven’t yet done a lot of colour mixing), or that fill specific miniature painter needs. I have some suggestions below, but it’s far more important for you to think about your personal preferences for the types of miniatures you paint and the techniques you like to use to paint them and select paints that fill your needs.

Neutral Grey

You can mix the entire value scale of neutral greys with combinations of white and black. But if you have space for it, I still recommend adding a medium value neutral grey to your set. Adding grey is another option for toning brighter colours down. Add a touch of brown for a warmer grey to paint fur, add a touch of blue for a cooler grey to paint stone. If you’re using Reaper paints, I recommend Cloudy Grey for this slot.

Flesh Tones

You can mix a wide variety of natural human skin tones from the paints I’ve suggested, but it can save time and frustration if you include a skin tone or two in your set. You want colours that are like soup stock – a starting point you can use together with your other colours to create recipes for different skin tones.

I recommend a medium value fairly neutral caucasian skin tone for one of your paints. Experiment with adding touches of red or magenta to shift it ruddy, oxide yellow and/or brown to shift it more golden or bronzed. Mix white with this to create highlights or make pale skin tones. In the swatch example below, the four colours to the left are examples of the kind of skin tone I mean by fairly neutral. The second from the right is not as neutral since it is peachy in tone. The rightmost is neutral, but a little darker in value than I suggest.

Flesh swatch cr

Flesh label

As a second option, try to pick something quite different from the first paint. My personal choice would be the second or third from the left in the picture below. These are warm golden skin tones. They would work well to paint different kinds of medium value skin tones than the above paint, and would also look great used as golden warm highlights for a darker skin tone. If I didn’t have something like that available, a ruddy/peachy option like on the far right and the dark bronze on the far left are examples of colours quite different from the paint suggested above. (Second from the right is one of the neutral skin tones that I included in the picture for comparison purposes.)

Flesh 2 swatch cr

Flesh 2 label

The oxide brown paint I suggested is a good starting point for mixing darker skin tones. Experiment with adding touches of black, purple, green, or blue to create different shades of dark skin, and then mix in one of your medium skin tones to mix highlights.

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True Metallics

If you don’t want to paint non-metallic metal, you’re going to need at least a few metallic paints. I don’t paint with metallics a lot, so some of the paint bottles in these photos are older and a bit of a mess. That’s on me, not the paint companies that made them!


Look for a medium value grey metallic that you can use for steel or similar materials. You can use black or other dark regular paints to mix washes or shadows for it. Shadows should appear less reflective, so using a matte paint for them works well.

Steel swatch cr

Steel label

Silver or White

You can use a very light value silver or white metallic to mix highlights for both your steel and gold metallic paints. I recommend doing some test mixes to see which paint in your collection works best for this purpose. It may also be possible to mix this with small amounts of more transparent colours to create satiny finish paints. (This often works better with inks so might be more of an at-home with all your paints option, but test it and see what you think!)

Silver swatch cr

Silver label


Aim for a more yellow based gold than a rose gold or bronze gold. When I mixed my silver highlight colour into the paint on the far right, the mix was pinky gold and it didn’t look like a great highlight or pale gold colour. (Both the base paint and the mix are lovely colours, just not as flexible as what I would want in a compact set.)

Gold bottle cr

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Inks and Washes

Do you like to use pre-mixed washes for shading your figures? Inks for glazing? Reaper Liners for lining? Any other types of paint or similar products that I didn’t mention above? Pick a handful of your favourites to include in your compact set.

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Time Savers and Favourite Colours

If you’ve been painting miniatures for any length of time, you have some favourite paints. These may be colours you just love the look of, or ones you’ve found super useful for various painting functions. You probably can’t fit all of your faves into your compact set, but if you have space for a few more bottles, it’s worth including a few of them.

I mix shadows far more often with Reaper’s Blue Liner than with black. Even though I could mix a similar colour by adding a little blue to black, I would want to add Blue Liner to my set as a timesaver. I could likewise mix one of my favourite colours for mixing highlights by adding a little yellow to white, but would want to add Reaper’s Mold Yellow to my set if I had the space. If I still had a slot or two, I might add teal or another colour I like a lot to have on hand. But it doesn’t matter what my faves are, you need to pick a few bottles of what you love to use!

A Miniature Hobbyist’s Packing List

Patreon supporters receive a packing list document as well as a PDF copy. Joining my Patreon, using my Amazon affiliate links, and one-time Kofi tips help me make take time away from commission painting to produce more free content like this.

If you want to paint outside of your home, what do you need to bring with you, and how do you pack it? This article includes tips for packing for conventions, classes and workshops, game store hobby sessions, compact home hobbying, lunch break painting at work, and similar activities. You can also watch a video version of this.

IMG 3261Do you need all this stuff? Let’s find out!

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What Should You Bring to Convention Painting and Sculpting Classes?

What you need to bring to hobby class that you’re taking at a convention is a very common question, so I’m going to start with this and then move on to other hobby packing suggestions.

Reread the description of the class, and any confirmation or other email you have received. Instructors should indicate any required supplies there. Double-check these sources when you’re packing for your trip to be sure you haven’t forgotten something. I particularly recommend paying attention to brush requirements/suggestions. (Or tool suggestions for sculpting and conversion classes.) If you don’t have the kind or size of brush specified by the instructor, you might not be able to practice the technique during the class, and you’ll miss the best opportunity to ask questions and get feedback. I have some brush transport suggestions below.

Most conventions and/or instructors provide paint and miniatures for painting classes and epoxy putty for sculpting classes. My experience has been that sculpting classes usually provide all the tools and other supplies you need. I have attended some where the fee was higher but you received a small set of tools to keep, and others where loaner tools were provided. Hands-on airbrushing classes often provide airbrushes and/or compressors for student use. However, always double-check your class descriptions and any additional information you were sent after signing up for the class and check if there are supplies that it is your responsibility to bring!

For Painting Classes You Need to Bring
– At least one brush, more if you can or if the instructor has requested specific/specialized brushes.
– Any other supplies the class description asks that you bring.

Other Useful Items to Bring to All Classes
– A notebook or paper and pen/pencil to take notes.
– A handle to hold the practice miniature and some poster tack or mounting tape to attach it.
– A magnifier or reading glasses.
– A chargeable or battery operated lamp.
– A way to protect the figure(s) you produce in class. (Bubblewrap, paper towel wrap, tacked inside a box or container, etc.)

IMG 3230An example of the items I recommend you bring to miniature painting classes at conventions. (Miniatures are usually supplied.)

I strongly recommend that you bring either a magnifier or a portable (battery operated or chargeable) lamp, or both to any painting or sculpting class. The lighting in convention rooms varies from indifferent to terrible. Even if you don’t need to use a magnifier/reading glasses at home, having one at the convention will help compensate for the poor lighting. Portable lights also help, and are increasingly inexpensive and lightweight. In literally every class I teach there is at least one person and often more who express frustration that they cannot see well enough to practice the technique. These tools are also hand in lecture and demonstration classes. The instructor often passes around their demonstration figure or other examples of their work, and you’ll see more of the nuances with light/magnification.

I highly recommend the Donegan brand if you need a magnifier, particularly if you wear glasses. This is the brand you’ll see almost all professional sculptors and painters wearing. Their newer OptiSight visor is lightweight and much more comfortable to wear than the original OptiVisor style, but has the same high quality of lenses. You can swap between different magnification strengths of lens plates with either model. I like the OptiSight so much I bought a second one so I can switch magnification without having to spend time with the plates. I have tried other brands of both styles of visor but found them uncomfortable to my eyes. If you need something more compact, you may prefer magnifying lenses that clip on to your glasses. If you don’t wear glasses you can use an inexpensive pair of reading glasses. Bring a miniature to the drugstore and try out some different magnifications to see which you prefer.

There are a lot of options for rechargeable battery lamps. Be sure to read the description carefully – some lamps might come up in a search for rechargeable lamps because the lamp can provide power to charge other items, but the lamp itself require power connection to operate. I am considering replacing my current lamp because the on/off switch is so sensitive that it often turns on in my bag and runs the battery down. I’m considering this one instead. A friend who does detail work enthusiastically recommends this lamp.

The next hurdle is that you need to remember to carry the supplies with you to the convention each day so you’ll have them in your class. Even if your hotel room is adjacent to the convention venue, or your car is in a nearby parking lot, you will lose at least 10 minutes of instruction or practice time if you have to run get your supplies. Pack them into whatever bag toting around the convention everyday, and/or set some kind of alarm to remind you to grab them on the morning of your class.

In my experience, the vast majority of convention classes provide the rest of basic supplies you’ll need. Typically this includes: water cup, water, something to mix paint on, and paper towel. Note that these may or may not be what you’d expect or prefer. Convention organizers also have budgets and packing/storage size constraints. The water cups might be quite small, or you might only be given a half sheet of paper towel. The painting surface may be just a plastic plate or even a small piece of parchment paper, though increasingly I find that most convention classrooms now provide the materials needed to make simple wet palettes in class. If you’re very particular about any of these supplies, you may want to bring your own. 

Most conventions and/or instructors provide paint and miniatures for painting classes and epoxy putty for sculpting/conversion classes, but double-check your class descriptions to make sure!

Plan for how you will store and transport what you worked on in class. I often forget to think about this! Freshly applied paint is not very durable yet. Classes are typically one or two hours, but epoxy putties take upwards of four hours to cure. Is the venue in your hotel and you can hand carry your class work back to your room? If that’s not an option, plan to bring materials to store and transport the work you produce in class. A strip of bubble wrap can be enough for a painted figure, or some toilet paper padding in a small box. You need to avoid touching the uncured putty on sculpts and conversions for several more hours, so those need another option. You can use poster tack or mounting tape to secure the base of the figure(s) to the lid of a dice cube, prescription bottle, or something like a washed out plastic peanut butter container for larger or multiple items. 

IMG 3232Examples of compact storage solutions to bring so you can safely transport your class work after the class finishes.


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Make a List, Check it Twice

If you need to pack up your supplies at all regularly, even if it’s only for a convention once a year, my recommendation is that you make a list. I mean an actual written out, itemized list. I keep a convention packing list document on my computer. I print out a copy of it before every event, and I check items off as I pack them. I made my list very broad so it applies to multiple events. If there are items that I don’t need for a specific event, I cross them off the printed copy before I start packing. Another option would be a tailored list for each event. I am sharing a starting hobby supplies packing list with the members of my Patreon.

If you host or attend occasional events like paint sessions at a local convention or paint club at a game store, you may have a set of supplies that you use only at those events. If you have the space, storing these in a designated storage container is a convenience. I have couple of bins filled with the materials I use to run paint and take tables at a local convention and paint days. I have a list of the items that are needed for events but I don’t keep stored in the bin taped to the inside lid. I also add a note if I see that consumable supplies like paper towel are running low. I check through the supplies in the bin a few days before an event so I have time to run out and pick up additional supplies if I need to. I also check through the bin after the event to tidy things up and check if I need to make note of anything for next time. I wouldn’t want to leave a wet palette closed up and mouldering, for example!

IMG 3260Part of my list from the last event I attended. I strike through items as I pack them or decide I do not need them for that event. I put an arrow next to items I haven’t packed yet to remind myself to find/buy them. The night before travel I circle any items that I either have to pack in the morning (like toiletries), or which are in a separate container than my suitcase, like my miniatures case.

This may seem like overdoing things, but making a list is a less annoying than arriving at a convention only to discover you forgot to bring a vital supply. My packing list includes all the non-hobby items I need, as well. Years ago my husband and I attended a convention and we forgot all of our charging cords for all of our devices. We ended up wasting time and money with an emergency run to the store to get replacements. Another time I arrived at a paint & take event and realized I’d forgotten the brushes. The start time of the event was delayed because I had to drive back to my house to get them, and I was lucky it was a local event so retrieving them was even an option!

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Bonus Tip – the Pre-Pack Bag

If you attend an event regularly, you will find that you sometimes want to bring items not on your list to a particular session of that event. Maybe you promised to show a friend at your paint club a base you did with a water effect. Maybe you’ve been thinning out your supplies and want to pass some tools or figures on to friends who need them more at the convention you’re attending. Maybe you just want to share some tasty treats only found in your region. I have found that these are things I think of or someone asks me about weeks or even months before the event, and then by the time I’m packing for the event, I’ve forgotten all about them.

If you want to make sure you remember to pack something that isn’t already on your list, one option is to add the item onto your list as soon as you think of it. Another option is to have a pre-pack bag or box. I have a cloth bag that I have designated for convention packing. If I think of a supply I want to find a new home for, or a treat I want to bring, or something I want to show a friend, I pop it in the bag. I know I’m going to bring that bag, so anything in it will be coming with me. In fact while writing this, I just remembered an item I’ve planned and failed to bring to a convention friend for at least three years. It’s now in the bag, it should make this this time!

IMG 3233Some of the random things already in my pre-pack bag for this year’s ReaperCon. The silicone discs are Paint Pucks. You can put them at the bottom of your rinse cup to safely scrub the bristles against to remove more paint. I have a few extras so I’m bringing them to give to friends.

When I’m unpacking in my hotel room, I know that the bag isn’t part of my hobby supplies, but that it does need to come with me to the event. It becomes a handy way to carry a sweater, some snacks, a card game or anything else I don’t want to mix in with my hobby supplies.

Because they are fragile, I do not pre-pack painted miniatures that are commissions or that I want to show friends. I have a designated corner of my display shelves where I place commission figures and gifts for friends. I know that I need to check that shelf as well as grab the pre-pack bag when I’m getting ready for a convention. If I were not in the habit of doing this, I would add a note on my packing list to check those two spots.

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Customize Your List to Your Needs

I am making the broadest list of supplies that I can think of in this article. I discussed this topic with convention goers and instructors to help round out my supply suggestions related to sculpting, conversion, and basing. Though as my primary personal focus is painting, I still may have left something out. It is always helpful to check with others who attend the same event and participate in the same activities for supply suggestions. Most conventions have an associated discussion group on one or more of Facebook, Discord, or their own website.

Overpackers take note – very few people would need to bring all of these items to an event! As you read through the suggestions, make a note of the supplies you need to attend your scheduled activities like classes, or to hang out and paint with friends if you plan to do that. If you don’t expect to assemble miniatures on site, don’t bring a pin vise, pins, glue, etc. If you’d be happy focusing on painting figures at the event and could sculpt bases for them later at home, don’t feel as if you need to bring sculpting supplies.

If this isn’t your first event, think about what you actually do at events. Not what you could do, or might do, or even should do. Just what you actually tend to do. Over the years I’ve realized that, outside of classes, I’m not that interested in painting at conventions. Convention time is so limited! I want to check out all the cool stuff in the vendor hall, spend hours staring at the gorgeous contest entries, and more than anything, spend time talking with people I see only a few times a year. I often bring only what I need to teach and take classes. On the other hand, when I go on a vacation trip, I do like to bring a small kit of painting supplies with me. Painting in my hotel room is a great way have some quiet time if my mind is frazzled or my feet are sore. Other painter friends I know love to have the opportunity to sit down and paint with friends at a convention, so they would need to make different packing decisions than I do. Thinking about what you are likely to do rather than what you should or could do can help you avoid overpacking.

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Paint and take rc2018The paint & take table at ReaperCon 2018 at the start of the day.

But What if I Forget Something??

Even with a list, you might forget something you need. If you try to pack light, it may happen that you need something you decided not to bring. What do you do?

Most conventions and shows have a vendor hall, so it might be possible to find what you need and buy it there. That’s not a bad choice if it’s something inexpensive, or something you can use another one of once you get home. If your budget doesn’t allow or you don’t need yet another whatever longterm, this is not the only option.

If you’re in the middle of a class or workshop, speak up. The instructor may have a few additional copies of that supply on hand. I don’t have enough brushes to bring one for every student in my classes, but I always bring a few extras in case someone forgot theirs or the brush they have isn’t suitable for the technique I’m teaching.

I have found that overall people in our hobby are a pretty helpful bunch. I’ve had a couple of memorable occasions where I needed something unexpectedly and there were people who very kindly helped me out, even in my early days when I wasn’t at all known in the community. I’ve also been part of groups working to help someone in need. The call will go out for superglue or a hobby knife or whatever thing, and people will ask around until they find it. (I have more than once been the person to supply a Sharpie, scissors, or tape.) I know it can be painfully hard for we introverts to ask for help, but I really do recommend that you give it a try.

If you’re new to an event or it’s a large event with diverse activities and you don’t know anyone to ask for help, look for volunteers at the painting related activities. Volunteers run paint and takes, speed paint events, and help clean up hobby classrooms. They usually know a whole lot of other hobby people, so even if they can’t help you themselves, they can point you towards someone else who might be able to help.

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Packing for Workshops

Workshops are one to three full days of intense painting instruction, usually with one instructor. The venue may be a game store, private home, or breakout room of a convention centre. Usually the only things the venue supplies are tables and chairs. Often the instructor has travelled from another region, or another country, so they have had to pack light and can’t bring all the supplies for everyone. The coordinator for each workshop is a member of the local painting community who probably also is not in a position to provide many supplies. I wouldn’t even assume that basics like water cups and paper towels will be provided.

As with classes, read through the description of the event and any supplemental material you’ve been sent for a list of required supplies. If you have not been provided with a list, contact the coordinator. I have attended workshops with very specific equipment lists. 

What do you do if you have financial or packing space constraints that limit your ability to bring everything that is suggested or required? If you have friends or acquaintances who are attending the same event, ask if they would be able to share some supplies with you. Many of the attendees will be locals or driving to the workshop, and will likely have space to pack a few extra things.

If you and everyone you know is flying, split the list of supplies between you. If you can, check with the event organizer to see if it would hamper you to skip or substitute some of the items. I attended one workshop that included a very large wet palette on the supply list. It would have been possible to come up with a homemade solution, or to accept working around the limitations of a smaller palette.

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Packing for Open Painting and Sculpting Areas

Some conventions like ReaperCon and AdeptiCon provide space for open painting and sculpting, but they usually do not provide any open painting supplies other than the tables and chairs. Paint clubs are a similar experience. You should plan to bring, borrow, or buy onsite anything that you will need to use. You will not likely have access to a plug at a convention, so if you want to use a lamp, bring a chargeable/battery one. I shared links to several suggested lamps in what should I bring to classes section above. If you want to use your lamp for extended periods, also bring backup batteries or a portable charging station. (This may seem stingy, but some venues charge conventions for access to plugs, and cords can create tripping hazards or block fire safety aisles.)

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Air Travel Packing Considerations

If you are traveling by air, you will need to be mindful of flight restrictions as you pack, particularly if you do not plan to check a bag. Note that it does not matter whether you think something should be considered an acceptable item. It doesn’t even matter whether the TSA website told you something was a permitted item. The agent inspecting your carryon makes the decision about whether something is permitted or not. If something you want to bring isn’t clearly permitted, consider whether you’d prefer to do without an item and leave it at home or if you’re okay with the possibility of being told to throw it away it during inspection.

If you will need to have access to products that are not permitted on a plane, or if you want to save weight and not have to pack a checked bag, one option is to ship yourself a package to your hotel or another location near your event that would be willing to hold the package for you. Note that since some packages are shipped via air, shipping and postal carriers may also have limits on certain types of chemical products.

Carryon Guidelines

The 3-1-1 rule is your guideline for fluids and gels, like paints. The maximum product container size allowed is three ounces, and the volume of the container should be clearly marked on the label. All of your fluid and gel containers must fit in a one pint ziplock bag, and only one bag per person is allowed. A pint baggie is only slightly larger than a sandwich baggie. That has to include all your liquid and gel toiletries as well as any hobby products like paint, so it’s not a lot of space for paint.

Sharp objects, blades, and anything that could conceivably be used as a weapon are not permitted in carryon luggage. That includes hobby knives, box cutters, and potentially several kinds of other sculpting and hobby tools. The sculptors I spoke with pack their tools into their checked luggage, and another friend was not permitted to bring drill bits for a pin vise in carryon.

Brushes are expensive and easily damaged. I prefer to pack mine into my carryon so I don’t have to worry about the brushes getting banged up. (I have some brush transport tips below.)

IMG 3234Please prioritize packing deodorant and toothpaste over paint.

Checked Luggage Guidelines

Most tools and blades are permitted into checked luggage. Larger amounts of liquid and gels are allowed as well, with the caveats noted in the following section. If you aren’t sure whether something is permitted, try searching for it on the TSA What Can I Bring? page. We fly with some weird looking stuff, assume that your bag will be inspected. Pack potentially messy items in clear bags, even if you’re storing them inside another bag or box. Store one type of material in each bag. So all the paints in one bag, but put epoxy putty in a small second bag, etc. If the TSA agent can determine what is in the bags without having to open them, it’s easier for everyone.

Paints, Glues, Chemicals

Flammable materials are not permitted in carryon or checked luggage.

Standard acrylic miniature paints are water-based. If security asks you questions about your paints, water-based is the term to mention. Before your trip, you can also try to contact the manufacturer for the MSDS (manufacturer safety data sheet) information on your paint product to print out and bring with you (or pack with the paints in your checked bag.)

Use of oil paints is increasingly popular among miniature painters. Tubes of brand name artist oil paints should be acceptable, but I would try to print out the MSDS to have available if there are questions. The solvents used with oil paints are not permitted in carryon or checked luggage. That includes genuine turpentine, and also odourless mineral spirits, odourless thinner, or whatever term your brand might use. These are highly flammable products. Commercial or homemade oil washes whose mix includes solvents are likewise flammable and not permitted on planes.

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There are other common flammable hobby products, such as superglue. If you need superglue at your event, try to arrange to share with someone who is traveling by car, or pick some up after you arrive at your destination.

Painted Figures

Painted figures are fairly fragile and irreplaceable. Some unpainted miniatures can be too, like resin or 3D print resin figures and scratch sculpts. I prefer to pack these into (or as) my carryon. If I am traveling with a lot of miniatures, I give carryon space priority to commission figures and contest entries, and I pack tabletop figures and painting class examples into my checked luggage. A previous article with information on miniature transport solutions and containers is available, and includes a link to a video version.

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General Packing Tips

Pack and secure all hobby items that might damage other items in your luggage. I store paints in double ziplock bags. I put any other gel/liquid/sticky item in an individual ziplock bag. I would probably also bag something like weathering powders, just in case a lid got loosened. I pack sharp objects or tools that could get bent in a hard plastic organizer case. I tape down the loose caps on my hobby knives.

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Paint Brushes

Bring at least a few of your favourite brushes, along with any brushes required for any specific event. Brushes are likely to be the hardest supply to borrow or replace. They’re expensive. Miniature supply companies rarely donate a lot of brushes to events. Unlike paints or figures that they produce in-house, companies generally buy brushes from a third party manufacturers, and have to pay more than just the cost of supplies and labour. If brushes are available at an event, they are likely to be lower quality or well-worn. Event attendees are often very generous in sharing their supplies with each other, but few people have extra brushes to loan out, or may be reluctant to share such an expensive and fragile supply.

Keep in mind what you’ll be painting as you choose which brushes to bring. If you normally paint gaming scale figures but one of your classes is on painting tanks or busts, pack a few larger brushes. If you’re taking a class on freehand or painting eyes, pack a few smaller brushes with great brush tips.

Next to our painted miniatures, brushes are probably the most fragile supply to transport. You need to protect the brush heads and avoid splaying or bending the bristles. I pack my brush case in my carryon/personal item.

Many brush storage products that you can buy will be longer in length than you need. They are designed to accommodate long-handled brushes for canvas painting as well as our short handled brushes. If space is an issue, you may want to shop in person or be careful to check the dimensions of online listings. My carryon is a large expandable backpack, and I have had to try a few different options to find brush storage containers that fit. Measure before you buy if you need to ensure that the brush storage case fits in a particular place. 

Whether shopping in person or online, look at makeup brush options as well as art brush options. Brushes are brushes in terms of storage needs, and makeup brush handles are closer in length to the short handled brushes we use. (Though many are much wider, so check if the storage option you’re considering works on narrow handled brushes.)

Pencil boxes and folders are also worth looking at. Be sure to check the length here. Some brands or larger sizes of our brushes are longer than a pencil. Some pencil storage options accommodate that, some don’t. Many pencil and brush storage options also work for sculpting tools.

Brush Protector Tubes
Most brushes are sold with a tube of clear plastic protector slid over the bristles. You can keep these to reuse, but there are some downsides to be aware of. They are not all the same size, so you need to have ones available that fit the specific brushes you want to travel with. Even if you have the correct size, the brush protectors are often not a tight fit. They can loosen up over time, or the plastic can split. You might need to tape the brush protectors on to the ferrule of your brushes to be sure they stay in place. You need to be very careful when placing brush protectors over your brushes and ensure that you don’t catch any bristles on the outside of the protector as this will also damage them.

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Plastic Pencil Caps
These are similar to brush protector tubes, but are made of sturdier plastic, and you can buy more if you lose them. They are designed to slide onto the end of a pencil to preserve the sharpened tip when it is stored in a pencil box or case. If the fit is a little loose on your brush handle, you can tape them to the ferrule, but it is possible these won’t work well with all of your brushes.. This pack of 16 is inexpensive. There are other options, including metal caps. (There are also leather pencil caps, but avoid these as they would touch and possibly deform bristle heads.)

Poster Tack
You can use poster tack to hold brush handles in place in any hard sided container of suitable size. If you’re already packing a wet palette and you’re tight on space, you can pack the sponge in a storage baggie and tack the brushes down inside the container. Loctite Fun-Tak is a very effective poster tack. I started using it after other friends recommended it, and I love it. Poster tack strength varies considerably. If you do not have access to that brand, I recommend testing the tack you buy before use. Tack some of your beat up brushes into your chosen brush storage, shake it vigourously, and check how well it worked. If brushes came loose, try another brand.

IMG 3238Brushes secured with poster tack to the inside of my Sta-Wet palette case.

Bamboo or Canvas Brush Roll
A brush roll is a long strip of material with pockets to hold the brushes. They roll out flat to allow access to the brush pockets, and roll up into a tube for storage and travel. They are inexpensive to purchase. The breathable materials allow brushes to dry out well after use. One is that you need to take some care arranging the brushes and rolling up the brush roll so as not to squash the bristles of any of the brushes. The other is that they need to be transported with the bristles facing up. If they are carried upside down, it is possible for brushes to all out, or for bristles be crushed against other items. Most brush rolls are designed to store both our short-handled kind of brushes and the long-handled brushes people use for canvas painting, so they can be pretty long.

Depending on how it’s constructed, you may be able to cut a bamboo brush roll down to the size required for our short handle brushes. (You can keep the cut off ends of the bamboo sticks to use in terrain construction or other hobby purposes!) Many bamboo rolls are constructed with some fabric elements that might make that more challenging. The roll looks similar to the one I bought and cut down to size years ago. The kinds of brushes it comes with aren’t good for miniature painting, but might work for some terrain uses. There are lots of other options. Just make sure you get one with pocket for the brushes! A few items sold as brush rolls are just sushi mats with no brush pockets.

IMG 3244I cut my canvas roll just above that elastic strip at the top to make it shorter and easier to fit into my carryon backpack.

I found this canvas roll designed for short handled brushes. This brush set comes with a canvas roll and is even less expensive. The brushes sound like they’re poor quality and most are too big for painting miniatures, but could come in handy if you paint terrain, or for children’s crafts. There are a lot of other canvas roll options, but most are long to accommodate long handled brushes.

Folding Brush Case
Folding brush cases are kind of like mini binders that you can store brushes in. You open them like a book to access the brushes, and then fold them in half and zip up for storage. Some of them fold down like a kickstand to become an upright brush holder for easy access during painting. Brush cases may have one large pocket on each side, a pocket with some dividers, or small pockets to hold brushes individually. I recommend a case with at least a few pocket divisions to help keep brushes oriented correctly. Similar products marketed as cosmetic brush cases or pencil cases might also work, but always check the measurements. Some cosmetic brush and pencil storage cases are too short for all our brushes.

IMG 3246This zip-up pencil case is terrific for sculpting tools. I don’t think it would work as well for brushes. Some are just a little too long, and the elastic straps are designed for wider diameter objects. There may be cases similar to this that would work for brushes, but always check measurements!

Brush sets with cases are often similar prices as empty ones, though I wouldn’t expect high quality brushes. This set of miniature sized brushes comes in a brush folder with the kickstand easel feature, as does this brush set with folder. This set has miniature sized brushes with a canvas roll that fits into a hard plastic storage case. I’m a little tempted to get that one myself even though I already have several brush carriers! I did find a couple of short handle brush case options sold without brushes. I am not familiar with the brand, but I think this one looks very well designed for our kind of brushes. It has individual handle pockets and an elastic strap for each brush, and folds out to the kickstand easel. Creative Mark is a reputable arts and crafts company; their short handled brush case has the kickstand easel feature, but I’m not confident that it is the best design to immobilize our narrow diameter brushes.

Plastic Brush Box
A plastic brush box is designed to store brushes. The box is hard plastic, but not airtight, so it allows brushes to dry out after use. Brush boxes are fitted with notched foam strips. You push the handle of the brush down into a notch and foam holds the brush in place. There’s a row of foam at the top and the bottom, so you can hold two rows of brushes in one box. The foam can loosen up over time, particularly if you have a few brushes with thicker diameter handles.

Artbin is a reputable brand and the foam in their box is high quality and well attached, but they only seem to make the large size box. It’s bigger than most hobbyists would ever need, and awkward to fit into carryon and convention floor bags. (I have two, one for paint and take brushes, and one for my watercolour brushes, so I have thoroughly tested this product.) I have a smaller size brush box that is very similar. It’s still very long, but much narrower. There’s room for plenty of brushes, even for instructors bringing extra brushes to classes. I have stacked two of our types of brushes into a single notch with both sizes of case. The foam in my off-brand box isn’t quite as sturdy, but I’ve used it for years so far. One strip came loose a few years ago, but I was able to reattach it with double sided mounting tape. This Amazon listing looks like a very similar product to my smaller brush box, though you do get three of them. I couldn’t find a listing with just one!

IMG 3243Small brush box on top, larger brush box below. Few people would need the large size for travel to events!

There are plenty of other listings for plastic brush boxes, but they’re all just plain boxes. They have no way to hold your brushes in place unless you glue in your own foam supports, or use poster tack.

Brush/Pencil Tubes and Cases
In any general search for brush cases, you will likely get a lot of hits for plain plastic tubes and cases. Most of these do not have a method to hold the brushes in place! You will need to use brush caps over the bristles, or be confident that you can pack and travel with the tube/case stored bristle side up at all times.

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Convention classes and paint and take tables usually provide a surface for mixing paint. Workshops and open painting areas usually do not.

If you have space, you can pack your preferred wet palette or plastic welled palettes. I wring out the sponge of my wet palette before travel, but I still like to put the palette in a ziplock bag in case of any stray moisture. You might be able to store a few other supplies in your palette box if you’re trying to save space. Be sure to bring extras of the palette paper you like to use if you’re going to be painting over several class sessions or a period of days.

To keep things simpler and lighter, pack a plastic plate and some parchment paper. Then all you need is some paper towel or napkins to make a simple wet palette. Plain parchment paper can be used as a dry palette in a pinch, so if nothing else just pack a few pieces of that.

IMG 3250On the left, a cheap and light wet palette option. On the right, some options for mixing watery washes and glazes to avoid making a mess.

Mixing washes and glazes can get messy on a flat palette surface. One option is a plastic well palette. You should be able to find a round 10 well palette in a local art or craft store, though the price for this pack of 15 round palettes is tough to beat. If you’d like something even smaller, this set of 30 compact rectangular well palettes is about the same price. (I have seen something similar in my local art store, as well.) I keep the plastic from blister packs when I open figures. I pack these with my convention supplies and use them to mix thin washes and glazes. Then I can just discard them after use and not worry about wiping out a plastic palette. Another disposable well palette option is to keep the plastic bubble tray from a package of pills.

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Paints, Mediums, Additives

I will make some suggestions for which paint colours to bring in a followup article. If you regularly use products like glaze medium, flow improver, or drying retarder to paint, bring those along. It may also be useful to bring brush-on primer and sealer, since use of spray products may not be permitted by the venue. Regardless of the colours you choose, take care in packing them. I check that lids are securely sealed as I pack. I bag paints and other hobby liquids in double ziplock bags. I also store any other hobby supplies that might leak or which are sticky into separate smaller bags. I bring additional bags in case I buy paints or other liquid/gel/sticky supplies at the event.

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There are a variety of options to transport painted miniatures. I survey these in detail in another article, which includes a link to a video version.

Some unpainted miniatures can be fragile as well, particularly resin miniatures. Even if you aren’t transporting painting figures to your event, consider what options you need to store miniatures you plan to work on at your event, as well as figures you might purchase or receive in classes.

If I am planning to hang out and paint in an open painting environment, I like to bring along a few figures that are fully prepped for painting. Ones that are already assembled, mouldlines removed, washed, and primed if appropriate to the material. I’ll try to pick some that offer a variety of surfaces and textures so I have options if I want to practice a particular painting technique after a class, or demonstrate something specific to a friend. If I were taking conversion or sculpting classes or hoping to spend some time learning more about sculpting from a friend, I would bring a few figures and armatures to practice that on as well.

IMG 1486Just a few of the miniature transport options.

Conversion and Sculpting Supplies

Even if you aren’t taking a class and you don’t sculpt a lot, you might still want to bring along a few basic sculpting supplies to have the option of customizing bases or filling gaps. However, if your main interest is painting and you’re trying to pack light, you probably don’t need these supplies. You can focus on painting at your event and work on bases for the figures when you get home.

If you want to pack epoxy putty, you don’t need to pack the entire large container you may have. You can cut or scoop out some of each part and put it in smaller containers, or just wrap it in plastic wrap and put it in baggies.

IMG 3251You won’t need the amount on the left. You probably won’t even need the amount in the centre.

Sculpting tool preferences are even more personal than brush preferences. Pick a tool or two that you find you can use a number of ways, or a small selection of the tools you find you use most frequently. Something for dividing putty and larger areas, something for detail, and something to smooth out the surface of the putty are a few starting ideas. Clay shapers are handy sculpting tools for shaping and smoothing. If you often roll putty out on a non-stick kind of plastic, bring a small piece of that with you. (The smooth side of milk cartons works well and can be cut to size.) Dulled hobby knife blades can be used for a variety of sculpting purposes. If you’re leery of bringing too many expensive tools with you that you might lose, file and sand a few toothpicks into useful tool shapes, and then strengthen them with a coating of superglue and bring those instead. Check this thread if you’re interested in pictures and comments about tools that other sculptors find handy for general and travel use.

I have a small Plano box that holds my miscellaneous sculpting supplies that I can pack if I need it. Tweezers for holding things and making certain kinds of marks. (Reverse tweezers are better if you just want to be able to clip onto the end of an armature and hold it.) Darning needles and etching tools. Oilers for making rivet impressions. I have a few small objects with interesting textures I can use to simulate the appearance of rocks and dirt. These include sandpaper, rough edged pieces of cork, a few lightweight rocks, and an old toothbrush. I have oilers/glue applicators to create rivets. (The end of a mechanical pencil also works for this purpose.) to create rivets and similar.

IMG 3253My miscellaneous sculpting tools box. The white piece of plastic was cut from a milk jug and is a great surface to work with greenstuff.

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Other Tools and Supplies

The following are some other tools and supplies that I might consider bringing to an event. When deciding whether you need to include something on your packing list, consider the activities you prefer to do, what you’ve been asked to bring to class, and your packing and travel limitations. Do not feel as if you have to bring everything I’ve listed! If you aren’t likely to assemble any figures at the event, you don’t need to bring a pin vise, pins, and clippers.

I recommended bringing a rechargeable portable lamp to convention classes and similar events where you will not likely have access to an outlet. These are very useful, but if you can plug in, you would probably prefer a desk lamp. This lamp looks the same as the lamps that Reaper purchased for their events and many artists liked well enough to purchase for home use. I can’t guarantee that is is the same, or whether it comes in the same sturdy box that is so handy for travel, though it looks like it in some of the review photos. I suspect that model is less popular now because lamp styles have been updated to include contact charging for devices. There are a lot of LED desk lamp options if the previously linked one doesn’t look like it meets your needs.

If you’re used to attaching your miniatures to a handle while you paint/sculpt, you’ll want to bring something for that purpose. (And if you aren’t used to it, try it, it helps make your paint jobs sturdier!) Even something as simple as a soda bottle lid or a prescription bottle is better than nothing. You’ll also need something to attach the miniatures – strong poster tack or mounting tape. I usually bring a bit of both. You can attach one side of mounting tape to your handle while packing and leave the peel on until you’re ready to attach a miniature once you’re at the event.

HandlesThere are lots of handle options, from repurposed to purpose made. I love wooden spools (which you can also find at craft stores), but you might prefer lighter options for traveling.

Pokey Tool or T-Pin or Paperclip
It is not unusual for dropper bottles to clog, so it’s very handy to have a tool like a t-pin or paperclip to clear the tips. I thread pins and pokey tools into pieces of cardboard or fun foam to prevent them piercing other objects. (Fun foam is also available in craft stores.)

IMG 3254The skull pokey tools are available online. The only way to get a crow pokey tool is to watch and win on the Crow’s Nest stream.

Hobby Knife
Hobby knives have a variety of uses. Most have slip on caps that loosen over time, so I usually tape the caps on for travel. I bought a retractable handle hobby knife to travel with. It is also lighter weight than the metal handle ones. If you have a small package of them that you can safely pack, bring some extra blades. This blade package even has a slot to safely dispose of used blades.

IMG 3255From the top down: sanding needles, diamond files, the kind of hobby knife I would tape the cap onto for travel, the retractable hobby knife.

Files and Sanding Needles
I prefer to remove mouldlines from figures with files and sanding sticks if the material allows. I have a small set of files and toss in a sanding stick or two. This file set looks similar to my favourite diamond files. I’d only bring three or four of the files to a convention though. I can’t find a listing for my preferred medium grit blue sanding needles, but I have also used the white fine sanding needles, and grey coarse sanding needles are available from the same maker.

Assembly Tools
If you plan to assemble miniatures, you’ll need tools like a pin vise, drill bits, whatever rod material you use for pinning, clippers to cut the rods to size, and glue.

IMG 3256Assembly tools. If you don’t know that you need bring stuff like this, you probably don’t need to bring stuff like this.

Brush Cleaner
You can buy small containers of the Masters Brush Cleaner and Restorer that are perfect for travel. These are sold at a high price on Amazon. You may also be able to find them at your local art store. You’ll stay pay more per ounce than for the typical sizes. I often don’t clean my brushes at events and just give them a thorough cleaning when I return home.

Basing and Terrain Supplies
Flock, static grass, gravel – the list of stuff to use to make bases and terrain is pretty long and could take up a lot of your packing space. Whether to bring anything like this depends on the activities you’re doing and your personal tastes. Do you want to be able to touch up the bases of your contest entries or army? Do you want to share extra supplies with friends or show them some basing tricks? Or do you just want to travel light and not worry about it?

Miscellaneous Hobby Supplies
Tweezers can be handy to remove fibres from paint. Reverse tweezers are useful as handles for thin parts like armature wires, and figures on tabs rather than bases. Isopropyl alcohol is a quick and easy way to clean a miniature for painting. I carry some for sanitization purposes, but it does double duty as a hobby tool. I keep a few napkins on me at all times in case of spills, but they also help if I need some more paper towel for painting. Disposable plastic gloves are handy for mixing epoxy putty, airbrushing, spray priming, and similar.

Miscellaneous Non-Hobby Supplies
Over the years I’ve found a few other things that can come in handy. I usually have a Sharpie pen, sticky notes or scrap paper, rubber bands, scissors, and tape. Retractable Sharpies are handy to travel with – no cap to lose or come loose. Metallic Sharpies are more fun for autographs though. If you have a site, a stream, a commission painting service, or you just want to be able to quickly share contact information with new friends, business cards are handy. (The print at home kind is fine for most purposes.)

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Shopping List (and Spending Budget)

Most conventions and miniature shows include a vendor area where you can purchase figures, paints, tools, painting and game books, dice, and much more. It is an opportunity to buy cool stuff you might never have seen before, or avoid the shipping fees of online purchases.

Set a realistic budget for yourself, and stick to it. It’s easy to overspend if you don’t pay attention. You could put cash equal to your vendor purchase budget in an envelope and only spend out of that envelope in the vendor hall. If a vendor only accepts cards, remove a corresponding amount of cash from your budget envelope to use for other convention expenses.

Regardless of your budget, it doesn’t hurt to have a little cash on hand. It’s rarer every year, but there are vendors who only deal in cash. This is more likely at an historical show or IPMS event (both of which are great options for miniature painters and sculptors to attend!). There are many weekend vendors and older vendors who prefer cash or don’t have access to card transaction technology. It’s also not unusual for convention floor wifi access to be slow or for vendors to have technical difficulties, so cash can come in handy.

Happy shoppersConvention shopping is fun, but stick to your budget! Rex Grange and Jen Greenwald show us how it’s done at AdeptiCon.

If you are planning to purchase specific items from vendors that you know will be at the event, make a list of these before you leave. Organize them by vendor, and note the correct name and SKU number of the product if possible. If you’re shopping at the Reaper store during ReaperCon, for example, they have likely organized items by SKU rather than product name. Vendors are usually happy to help you find things if you forget the name of something, but it will help save you time and frustration if you have a list.

Vendors with large catalogs and small vendors with small booth areas can’t bring everything to every show. If you’re interested in a particular item, consider contacting the vendor in advance to see if they are bringing that item to the show, or if they would allow you to purchase it in advance and pick it up at the show.

Shop early! This is particularly important if you are looking for specific items. If an instructor mentions a product during a class that you’d like to buy and you want to look for it in the vendor hall, go shopping as soon after the class as you can. All of the other students probably want to buy that now, too. Vendors have their own packing constraints, and they can’t always predict what will be most popular to make sure they bring enough of it.

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Packing to Host Events

Maybe you would like to work with your game store to teach some beginner classes. Maybe you’ve offered to teach classes or host a paint and take at a local convention. How do you pack for that? A detailed discussion of running events is beyond the scope of this article, but I do want to share a few tips for packing.

I still recommend making a list, and checking it off as you pack things. If it’s a recurring event, check the supplies several days before the event in case you need to buy some more water cups or something like that.

If you’re running an event, you are more likely to have access to electricity and can consider whether you want to bring a lamp or two for you to demo with, or even supply lamps for the attendees.

Pack plastic tablecloths, and a few more than you think you’ll need. Venues either have no tablecloths or use cloth ones. Events will be charged a damage fee if tables or tablecloths are stained, and that fee can be a lot higher than you might imagine. If the event is in a hotel, you may also be required to tape heavy plastic down in the paint area to protect carpet.

For some supplies, you will need to choose between more expensive but compact and reusable options, or less expensive options that are disposable and space consuming. Plastic cups work well for rinse cups, and stack compactly. You can reuse these for quite a long time if you have space to transport them. You also need to remember that they will be wet when you pack up, so you’ll need to pack them in a way that doesn’t damage other supplies. Foam coffee cups may be cheaper, but they take up a lot of storage space and degrade quickly.

High volume paint and take and class environments often use foam plates and discard them between every user. Foam plates take up a lot of storage space. Plastic plates are more expensive, but may stack more compactly and can be used repeatedly if used as a tray. Place a piece of parchment paper on top of the plate. Discard the parchment paper after each user and replace with a new one. You can even make wet palettes by putting wet paper towel under the parchment paper. Pre-cut parchment paper rounds are available in a few different sizes for cake makers. (That link includes several different sizes. Measure the size of the plates you’re using and buy the size that matches.) Paper towel is another bulky supply, but painters need them to rinse out their brushes and for drybrushing. 

If supplies like paper towels and foam plates are too bulky to travel with, plan to purchase them once you arrive at your destination. You may need to have a bit more of these types of supplies than you think you need on hand, or have a plan for how to restock if you start running low during an event

Don’t forget water! Painters need water to rinse brushes, and you need to be able to pour out the dirty water out of rinse cups and refill them with fresh. Make sure you know what access to water you will have at the event. Even if there is a sink quite close by, you will need a way to transport clean water to your area and dirty water away from it. Juice jugs are an option for smaller sized events. You need at least one container with a wide mouth to dump dirty rinse water into. If you have a bit of a walk to the sink, a container that seals securely is handy.

Snakeman: Critique and Touchup Comparison

The Patreon supporter PDF version of this article includes high res photographs and better formatting. Ko-fi tips are another way to help keep this content freely available to everyone.

A lot of us want feedback on our miniatures to learn how we can improve. However, when we do get some advice, we can find it difficult to visualize what the figure would look like if we implemented it. This is one of a series of before and after articles I’ve worked on to help you see critique put into practice, and explain the principles behind common critique suggestions. You can also watch a first and then second video of the initial painting, and then a third video with a critique of the first figure and repainting the improved version.

Nagendra rightSculpted by Chris Lewis.

The differences between this before and after example may not seem super obvious with a quick glance at the photos, but I will explain how they illustrate some important concepts that can help you improve your quick tabletop painting as much as your time-consuming display painting. I have tried to make this a more incremental, rather than an extreme revision. Comparing a novice or even intermediate painter’s figure to an amazing award-winning one is not always that helpful – there are so many differences that it can be hard to break them down and pick out a few things to focus on in your own painting practice.

The reason it may be hard to spot the differences here is that I used the similar techniques on both of the figures, but I applied the paint to each using different principles. So the blending isn’t better on the after, it doesn’t have fancy freehand, and both are painted with metallic paints. Most of us focus a lot of attention on technique-related issues in our attempts to improve. How can we paint butter smooth blends, uniform lining, precise freehand, astonishingly realistic textures? Improving our range of techniques and our ability to deftly apply them are definitely steps on the ladder to improved results.

However, most of us put too much emphasis on technique. We focus all of our practice and conscious attention on improving our ability to handle a brush and manipulate paint. Smooth blending was my main focus during my first several years painting. One day I reached a point where I realized that my blending was not that much worse than the work of the painters I admired. But I still wasn’t winning awards and accolades at their level, and if I compared my figures to theirs, I could see that my paint jobs weren’t as interesting or visually striking. Was it actually not all about blending?? It is not! Painting great looking miniatures is not all about blending, or freehand, or textures, or non-metallic metal.

If you have ever worked to improve your technique, you already know that it is rare to experience a dramatic skill level-up between one miniature and the next. But over time, you start to apply the paint with more precision. Over time, you start to apply drybrushing or blending more skillfully. If you compare your first few figures to ones you’ve recently painted, the eyes and details are more neatly applied, the blending or drybrushing is less patchy. If you compare last week’s figure to this week’s figure, you won’t see a dramatic difference, but it and all the other figures you painted between then and now reflect increments of your current skill level.

The same thing happens with principles like contrast and colour use. Working to increase the level of contrast in your painting is usually something that occurs over a span of time because your eyes, mind, and hands are all involved in the process, and they don’t all progress at the same speed. Refining your use of colour is a similar process. You can memorize a lot of colour use information in a few hours, but figuring out how to successfully apply that knowledge to your figures takes a lot more time and hands-on practice. Your skill in using contrast, making optimal colour choices, and a lot of the other topics that might come up in a critique is going to be incremental, just like your progress with technical skills.

I think a lot of painters striving to improve their work have moments of frustration or confusion like I had when I realized that my blending was now good enough that it wasn’t the issue holding back my painting. My moment included the opportunity to make a direct comparison between a miniature I had painted, and Jen Haley’s version of the same sculpt. I could see that the smooth blending on my figure was actually pretty close in quality to hers, but Jen’s figure had much more nuance and visual interest. Part of what makes her miniatures look fantastic is her masterful technique, but the colour choices she makes and where she places those colours within the blending are also critical to her lovely results.

This comparison got the wheels of my mind turning about what else I might need to learn. Figuring out what I needed to study was not a simple process. (And is still ongoing!) I wasn’t able to consciously detect much what Jen Haley was doing differently in that first comparison. Once I did choose some subjects to work on, learning the concepts and successfully applying them to my painting was not a quick process. I had moments, even years, where I was stalled because I either didn’t know what to work on, or didn’t know how to work on it. Part of the reason I started this blog was to share what I’ve learned in the hope of sparing other painters some of the time and frustration I’ve experienced.

I designed this snakeman to be a more incremental example rather than a dramatic before and after. It’s not meant to be an example of the end goal. It’s an example of what the next few steps on the path might look like after a few weeks or a few months of trying to implement some colour theory and push your contrast a little. If you’re having trouble seeing much difference, study the photos closely, and read through the rest of the article. We rarely think of it, but looking at and assessing figures is part of the overall task of miniature painting. Training our eyes is as important as training our hands. Improving your visual discernment makes it easier to study other people’s work and figure out how they do what they do, and also helps improve our ability to assess our own work.

So let’s compare these snakemen to get an example of some of the concepts I’m talking about. In this article I’m going to talk about how your colour choices and figure choices can affect your end result. I’ll also share the kinds of critique comments you might receive on something like the before snakeman from a painting instructor or judge, and address some of the more minor points. The most important concept these figures illustrate is why the miniature community puts such an emphasis on shadow/highlight contrast. Explaining why that is so has grown into an article of its own that I will be posting soon!

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Critique of the Original Snakeman

My goal for the before snakeman was to create an example of a competently painted figure – not totally novice, but also not amazing. I used washes and drybrushing for the scales and base, and basic layering on the equipment. I painted the figure on stream, and you can watch video one and video two if you’re interested in seeing the painting process.

Once the figure was completed I took a few pictures. I studied the figure in the hand, at arm’s length, and also studied the photos to develop the critique. The critique notes I made are below. I also talked through most of the critique points in a third video, while I painting a revised version of the figure to illustrate how you could implement some of the critique points. Note that this is a very thorough critique! I had plenty of time to study the figure, and I had painted it with the aim of trying to illustrate several issues to help people better understand critique comments they might receive. Because of the time it takes, you are unlikely to receive this detailed of a critique from most painting class instructors, contest judges, or those who share opinions online. This is more along the lines of what you might expect from a paid critique tier in a Patreon or something similar. However, within the critique are examples of some of the comments you might receive in a general critique scenario, and it is my hope that this article will help you better understand them.

Nag1 frontOverall:

* The colour choices work in terms of making the figure legible to the viewer, and being logical to the character/situation. None of the colours clash.

* The colour choices could work even better, however. The vivid orange could be contrasted with its complement, blue. Or as part of a triad scheme of orange-green-purple.

* There is an outer limit to how nicely I could paint the sword. If this were a contest figure, I would choose to paint a metal version if available.

* There are visible mould lines and glue joins that detract from the overall prep/presentation aspect.

Body Scales:

* The colour selection for the scales works well. The use of more saturated colours in the midtone and highlights adds some contrast and pop. The wash colour is more subdued, which helps the recesses appear to recede. It is dark enough to accent the scale texture without looking too stark.

* The wash brought out the texture of the individual scales, but it does not accent the overall cylindrical form of the snake body, nor the smaller forms of the muscles on the back and arms.. The highlights are concentrated on upper surfaces which does help create a little form, but shadow is more effective at making shapes look more three dimensional.

* Some of the highlights look a little fuzzy or messy in places. There is a big gulf between drybrushing scales and the long way of painting them, but it might be possible to tidy up a little.

Nag1 back

Belly Scales:

* The belly scales look a little bland – there is not enough value contrast between the highlights and shadows.

* The belly scales are a fairly large proportion of the whole figure. They’re not just a little accent, so they deserve a little more attention than they received.

Metal Areas

* Detailing and highlighting of the metallic is solid.

* The wash accentuates the fine sculpted details on the metallic areas, but as with the scales, it does not bring out the forms. This is particularly noticeable on the larger spherical shield.

* The colour choices for the metals are pretty neutral – they don’t detract, but they also don’t add.


* Why green grass/vegetation on this base? Although this is a soft green, I feel like it draws too much viewer attention to an unimportant area of the figure.

Nag1 shield


* The eyes need to be painted.

* The painting on the straps is solid. It could be smoother, there could be edging and/or more contrast. As with the other colours it doesn’t detract, but it doesn’t contribute.

* The back of shield is just a flat colour, it could use some highlighting for dimension, and/or some detail like painted wood texture.

There are some small specific issues like the eyes, but there are also a several comments that relate to a few larger issues. One is contrast and form, and that’s the big topic for the followup article, but let’s run through the rest. I didn’t address every one of the critique points on the revised figure. I wanted to keep it in the same ballpark on a technique level, and to keep the focus on some of the non-technique concepts that we often overlook, but which are equally important to improving our painting level.

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Make Colour Work for You

One of the larger concepts I wanted to illustrate with these figures is the idea of trying to use colour to your advantage. There isn’t really anything ‘wrong’ with the colour selection on the original snakeman. None of the colours clash or look improbable. The colour scheme doesn’t detract from the end result, but it also doesn’t enhance it. Colour is a potent tool we can use to inspire mood, evoke character, and create something that is visually pleasing. Good colour choices can create more visual impact for less time investment on armies and tabletop figures, and they can be crucial to improving the end result of display pieces that you put significant time and effort into.

Nagendra left

I know it can feel like a waste of time to spend much time trying to figure out a colour scheme rather than just start applying paint to the figure. Maybe you’re excited to begin painting your big contest project, or maybe you’re just trying to get this miniature on the table ASAP. I jump in and just start painting all the time! And when I do, the results are rarely as good as on the figures where I take a little time to think about my colour choices before I start.

Detailed discussions of colour theory are beyond the scope of this article, but I do want to go over the considerations I made for this specific figure. These decisions were based on simple and widespread colour scheme suggestions that you would see on a colour wheel or online colour tools.

The colour selections for the original figure were:

* Orange scales with touches of muted red and yellow for the body, with more with subdued browns in the same colour family on the belly scales
* Steel armour with black shadows
* Tan leather equipment
* Muted green base

I looked at a couple of different options to decide how to make the colour scheme of the revised version more effective. I talk through this process on video. Orange is the dominant colour and I think the orange scales are the centrepiece of the paint job. Because there aren’t a ton of different areas on the figure, I probably need a colour scheme with only two or three colours.

One option would be an orange/purple/green triadic colour scheme. The figure already has green on the base. Note that the colours of a colour scheme do not all have to be obviously visible on the figure to work effectively. I would not have to add a vivid purple to the figure if I used the orange/green/purple triad. Rather, I could use dark purple instead of black to shade the metallics, and/or a purply brown for the equipment, something like Ashen Brown.

Nagendra back

I did not choose this option. I don’t love the green on the base. Even though it’s a softer green, I feel like it steals some attention away from the main figure. This is not a vignette scene that needs grass/vegetation to tell its story. While I could sneak purple in through shadow colours, I don’t really see a way to incorporate more green into the rest of the figure other than painting it into the eyes, or repainting the equipment in a greenish colour. I wasn’t sure that using dark green wash on the metallics would look very natural, though I would have tested that if I had decided that the orange/green/purple triad was the way to go.

Another option would be to use a two colour scheme composed of orange and its colour complement. Complementary colours are those directly opposite from one another on the colour wheel. In traditional colour theory, the complement of orange is blue. This seemed like a better solution to me. Dark desaturated blue is great for shading metallics, and most other colours. Using a muted blue or grey-blue for the leather straps and armour would provide both colour and temperature contrast to the warmer scales, but still keep the equipment secondary in interest to the body. The textures on the base could be painted as grey stones with blueish shadows. A rocky environment fits as well or better with the character, and the more subdued colour keeps the focus on the figure itself. I used the same muted blues to paint additional shadows onto the snakeman’s body, which I will talk about in the article about contrast and form. Using a colour complement and/or a cooler colour in shadows usually works pretty well. (Purple would also have worked as well if had I chosen the triad colour option.)

The colour choices are not earth-shatteringly different between the two figures, but I do think that the revised figure with the complementary colour scheme comes together more and looks more pleasing to the eye than the original colour choices. Apart from adding additional shadows, I painted these colours with the same techniques as on the original figure. Colour choices that work together are just as effective for great tabletop figures as they are for display figures.

I know colour is a scary and confusing topic for a lot of people. However, keep in mind that you don’t have to learn and understand everything about colour before you have any hope of improving your colour use! You can start with a few simple principles, like using complementary colours together, or simple sets of colours like triadic colour schemes, or the idea of using cooler colours for shadows.

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Figure Choice and Preparation – Best Foot Forward

Another larger concept I wanted to demonstrate with this figure is that the end result you can achieve with your piece is limited by the sculpt you choose, and the way you prepare and present that miniature. There are painters who can make anything look fantastic, and I’m sure there are people who could turn this or any other figure into a gold medal award winning entry. If we aren’t sure that we are one of the painters who can pull that off, it is to our advantage to put some thought into which figures we choose to spend a lot of time and effort on, and to prepare those miniatures to the high degree that we can.

The snakemen I painted are classic Bones plastic miniatures. Classic Bones is a somewhat soft plastic. Edges and detail aren’t always crisp, and thin straight parts don’t always look as straight as they should. Now, I think this is a great figure, and that’s why I chose it for a class on scales I taught a few years ago! The scales and the shield detail are crisp and paint up well. But there are some issues that would make me leery of choosing this as a competitive contest entry I intended to put a lot of time into.

Nagendra shield

Join Gaps
There is a visible gap where the body joins the end of the tail. (You can see it just below the shield in the photo above.) I could probably use filler to mostly fix this, but it might require using putty and some sculpting to create a completely seamless join. There is also a smaller gap where the head attaches to the body that isn’t noticeable on some copies of this figure, and is easy to fix with fillers on copies where the gap is a little looser.

The sword is one of those thinner pieces that are hard to make look completely straight in classic Bones. The sculpt includes runes etched into the sword blade, and those aren’t as crisp as the rest of the detail on the figure. It would be more challenging to paint this than a similar sword on a figure made of metal or hard plastic.

As a general rule, higher level contest entries are expected to not have readily visible mouldlines. Cleaning mouldlines off of classic Bones can be challenging. Cleaning mouldlines off of scales can be challenging in any material. Together that is more challenge than I would want to deal with. If I could get a metal or resin copy of the figure, I could probably prep it cleanly, though it would take some time investment. (And there are metal versions of some of the Nagendra snake people.)

Some textures or techniques range across a spectrum from quick and dirty to flawlessly executed. For blending, you might have rough layers transitions on one end and silky smooth blends on the other, with a range of options in between depending on your expertise and how much time you want to invest. You can paint an effect like source lighting across a similar spectrum, from drybrushing through to flawlessly blended. I think there are other techniques or surfaces that are extremes rather than a full spectrum range. Feathers and scales fall into that category for me. You can do quick drybrush/wash scales, slightly nicer side brush scales, or all out I am taking hours to paint all of this the hard way scales. There’s aren’t a lot of in the middle options for scales. If you don’t have the dexterity or the time to paint scales the hard way, you may have no choice than to paint them at a lower level of ability than you could demonstrate if you were painting another kind of surface texture. It is to your advantage to select miniatures that are primarily made up of elements that allow you to showcase your strengths. 

The base of this snakeman is pretty simple and very small in area. It doesn’t offer a lot of opportunity to demonstrate the ability to paint other materials/textures, or even space to build up more of an environment with flock or grass and so on. Extending the base of the figure would enhance it. Fitting the base of the figure onto a base with a bevel or rounded edge would also add a little polish to the presentation of this figure, like putting a painting in a frame.

If you’re new to contests and confused by some of the terminology here, check out the contest and show overview article.

Classic Bones figures are welcome at the MSP Open! There is even a special Giant Sized Monster Award for the Reaper monster entries, and almost all of the figures that would be eligible for that award are produced in the classic Bones material. We understand the limitations of the material and would not count something like a slightly bent sword or spear against you. Entries submitted to the Painters category are not expected to have elaborate, or even any basing. A figure/bust on a plain black base or plinth is a complete entry for Painters. Painting considerations alone make up 70% of the score for a Painters entry. Note that this does including the painting of any base elements that are present. (And earth and stones and such on a base should be painted.) The other 30% includes factors like workmanship, creativity, difficulty, and presentation. Thus it is possible for poor base construction or painting on a base to detract from a Painters category score, and for imaginative, well-constructed and well-painted basing to contribute to it. More information on MSP judging considerations and FAQs is available.

IMG 1863The awards at the MSP Open include open medals, and podium award manufacturer trophies.

Contests and Shows in General
Podium style contests where judges/votes select a first, second, and third place in each category are very competitive. Depending on the size of the contest, the judges may begin with five or 15 or 35 entries that all look potentially eligible for a top three spot in a category. This group is known as the first cut, and it’s an honour to make it there! It sounds harsh to say it, but in a podium style contest, the judges have to find reasons to eliminate entries from consideration until the number of pieces remaining equals the number of awards available. If two pieces are roughly equal in quality on first assessment, the judges look for reasons to keep or eliminate one of them. Reasons to keep might include something like having used a more difficult to execute technique, or a colour scheme that is skillfully applied to enhance the mood of the piece. Reasons to eliminate definitely include factors like mouldlines, gap joins, and uninspired or poorly executed basing. In many contests bendy weapons, visible 3D printing artifacts, and similar factors that may be inherent to the material of the figure could result in elimination. Part of what is being assessed in competitive contests is not just the paint/conversion/assembly of your foundation surface, but the judgement you demonstrate in the selecting your surface. I also want to note that although most open show format contests use similar judging criteria, one show may have an overall more stringent or more easy-going standard than another. I was awarded Silver medals at the World Expo Open with figures that had been awarded Gold medals at the MSP Open and/or Atlanta figure show, and that was consistent with the awards I saw others receive. Gold medals were awarded to only the most exceptional work. All three of those shows use judging criteria based on the same system.

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Belly Scales

One area that I did paint with a different technique than those used on the original figure is the belly scales. Drybrushing worked well to add highlights and bring out the texture of the main body scales. The belly scales are larger, smooth plates. As often happens on smoother surfaces, the drybrushing looks patchy. It was also harder to confine the lighter colours to smaller areas on the shapes of the belly scales, so I did not go very light in value, and there isn’t enough contrast.

Nagendra front

For the revised version, I chose to make the belly scales look like they are striated. I painted the striations with overlapping dash brushstrokes, confining the lightest colour ones to smaller and smaller areas. This kind of texture is most easily painted with a fine-pointed sable brush, but I painted some of this with a synthetic brush. You can see the painting of the belly scales on the revision video. The striations are not applied in a super fiddly precise manner, and I don’t think you need to have developed amazing brush control to be able to paint this kind of texture. Once you get the hang of it you’ll likely find it isn’t as time consuming or persnickety as trying to paint smooth blends, so it’s a viable option for tabletop painting, too. If I were painting this as a high level contest entry, I would take more time and try to apply the dash strokes to the best of my ability. I also painted in some darker shadows where the belly scales overlap.

Nagendra left

I think the use of the different technique on the belly scales adds visual interest to the revised version of the figure. Painting them with smooth blending and highlight edging would have accomplished a similar goal. We think of contrast most often in terms of dark/light, or one colour different to another, but texture is also a kind of contrast. We can use that contrast to help draw attention to a particular area of a figure. As viewers, we like looking at variation. Including different kinds of surface textures and/or application techniques on a figure makes it more interesting to look like.

Demonstrating an ability to paint different kinds of textures and effects is also advantageous for contest entries. In an open show format contest, it can increase the judges consideration of the difficulty, creativity, and workmanship of your piece. Judges in podium contests have similar concerns. Additional complexity and variety of texture on a figure could give judges a reason to keep it in the running for the final pool of consideration for awards.

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Other Before and After Articles

If you’re looking to better understand common critique topics to improve your painting, you’ll find all articles related to that in the Common Feedback Issues Index. Below are links to other before and after comparison type articles that I’ve written.



Victorian Lady

Bikini Women

Ghost Bride Betty

Anwyn vs Tara

Improvement is NOT Mandatory

Over the next couple of months I plan to post additional content related to contest feedback and improvement. But first, this very important message:

IMG 0240

You are not required to be able to speed paint great looking figures before you can play a game.

You are not obliged to strive for the next medal/level/prize in order to attend a convention or enter a contest.

You do not have to paint to a certain standard before you can share pictures of your minis.

You do not need to have the goal of improvement to be allowed to participate in or enjoy our hobby.

It may seem strange for me to being saying that, since the majority of the content I write is about to improve your miniature painting. I personally enjoy learning, and I also enjoy helping others learn. That’s my personal niche, but I have never believed that is the only way to enjoy our hobby!

What I do think is critical to getting the most enjoyment out of your hobby is to figure out what you most like about it! That can be harder to do than it sounds. 

We’re surrounded by announcements of contest results, get better quick tips, solicitations for painting lessons, before and after photos, advice for how to improve, and most of all – images from amazing painters who accomplish feats we can only dream of. It’s easy to unconsciously absorb the idea that that’s what all miniature painters should do: work to get better.

Those pressures within our hobby can be magnified by our general cultural attitudes. Dominant Western culture at some point decided that there are certain activities that we actively encourage for all children regardless of their skill level, but which we actively discourage for adults unless they have ‘talent’. Largely these are artistic pursuits – singing, dancing, drawing, and of course – painting. For some reason it’s okay to take up hiking or biking without striving to achieve a particular metric of speed or endurance. Or play video games for fun without ever expecting to join the professional gaming circuit. When we try out an artistic hobby, we (or people around us) often assume that it isn’t for us if we don’t show some immediate ‘talent’ for the activity, or if we don’t become good enough to be able to monetize it.

Amid the dictates of these external ideas and attitudes, we might not have yet discovered what we personally enjoy about our hobby. It can take some conscious thinking to figure that out. I’ve previously written an article with some tips for how to do that, because I believe that:

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Even once you do identify what you most enjoy doing, you need to be mindful that your tastes can shift over time, or can alter temporarily in response to events in your life. I wrote this article suggesting we cut ourselves a break during covid troubles, but it’s useful advice for any challenging circumstance.

If you identify what you enjoy and the activities required to improve are not on the list, that’s okay! It’s okay if determined study and failed experiments are not on the list of things you like. It’s okay if dealing with the stress of contest deadlines and competition isn’t on the list, either. Or maybe you do sometimes like the pressure cooker of striving to do your best and excel in a contest, but right now you have a lot of work/school deadlines and you’re feeling stressed out. It’s okay to just paint for fun and sit this contest season out, or just enter whatever you’ve painted, even if it isn’t the absolute best you could do.

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This advice is not based only on my own experiences. Over the years I’ve had a lot of personal and online conversations with hobbyists of a wide variety. I want to share some of what I’ve observed, because I think some of our frustrations and realizations are much more common than we think. The good news about that is it means we’re not as alone as we think! When I tell these stories in my Level Up classes at conventions, I often have a friend later ask me ‘That observation was based on me, wasn’t it?”, but it’s always the case that whatever they’re asking about was drawn from conversations with multiple people.

I know a lot of people who enjoy and even thrive on painting competitively. Even if you don’t think you’re likely to win, working on a contest entry can encourage you to try that technique or idea you’ve been putting off because you’re a little scared of it. The desire to create something cool that people will stop to look at can inspire tremendous creativity. Just having the deadline of an upcoming contest helps some of us actually just finish something instead of putting off working on it, or stops us from endlessly reworking it.

You do not have to be a top tier painter to paint entries for a contest! You don’t have to have an expectation of winning to enter. The viewers of contest entries often enjoy looking at very different entries than the ones that end up winning. When I hang out near contest display shelves/tables and observe people, the pieces I see evoking an emotional response or that people call their friends over to look at are not only the ones that impress the judges. And that’s great! That is another reason you don’t have to only paint something judges would like to be able to enter contests!


I’m covering a wide swath of activities under the umbrella of the term competition. I don’t just mean the big contests held at conventions. Many manufacturers hold their own competitions on their websites or Facebook groups or within a larger contest. There are hobbyist created challenges like finishing a war band in a set amount of time or painting a figure a day for a few weeks. There are also shows like the MSP Open which are structured to recognize every entrant for their level of accomplishment and the only person you’re competing against is yourself.

Entering and painting for competitions is not a great fit for everyone all the time, and that’s okay! If you’re currently busy and stressed out, another deadline is may drain more joy than it inspire. Maybe you’d get more satisfaction out of painting a bunch of figures for your game than spending the same amount of time on one best of your ability piece. Participating in a contest can bring up a lot of strong emotions, and sometimes that’s not the healthiest option for us.

To achieve the higher medal levels in a show or paint competitively enough to place in a podium contest requires a lot of study and practice – watching videos, attending classes, reading tips, soliciting and applying feedback, practicing techniques, and then doing it all again. Even those who enjoy that process will go through periods of frustration and failure that aren’t much fun. I know several painters who realized they do not enjoy the competitive treadmill of attending classes, practicing, entering, rinse and repeat. They thought about it and realized that what they do enjoy is painting for games, painting gifts for friends, relaxing with their hobby after work. So they do that now, and they’re very happy in their hobby! They might enter some work into something like the MSP Open, but for fun and to show off their figures, not with the expectation that every year they’ll be awarded the next medal level up from the year before.

I started painting to enter contests very soon after starting to paint, and for many years after. I thrived on the deadlines, and the way contests pushed me out of my comfort zone to try new techniques or create something more imaginative. And then one day I didn’t. It started to feel like something I was obligated to do to establish or maintain my reputation as a ‘pro’ painter. It started to matter to me whether I won or not, which I did not think was a healthy attitude for me. The risk/reward just wasn’t paying off anymore. I was getting a lot more value out of painting good figures for my clients or painting teaching examples than I was from attempting to paint a great figure for a contest. So eventually it occurred to me that maybe I should just do that. So I did, and it’s great. Maybe one day what I enjoy will shift back to more contest oriented painting and that will be great, too, provided I’m making that decision based on what is best for me. (I still enter shows like the MSP Open and Atlanta Miniature Figure Show, because I can enter pieces I’ve worked on for other purposes.)

Everybody needs a hobby

In my mind, quality of output is not what defines the best professional miniature painters and sculptors. The people I think of are those who thrive in the job. I think of Aaron Lovejoy, and how excited he is about painting. He loves to study other artists, figure out how they do what they do, and find ways to implement that into how he works. I think of James Wappel and how he is constantly experimenting and iterating and evolving the way he paints. I think of the putty sculptors I know who eagerly scour through junk shops looking for objects that might create interesting textures, and the digital sculptors who have hours-long conversations swapping tips and tricks.

Now I am not saying that these professionals are always happy doing what they do. No matter how much we love it, if we call something work, it has tough parts! Everyone has periods of frustration, exhaustion, or just not being in the groove. But the professionals I think of as most successful are those who have figured out the aspects of their job that give them joy, and who incorporate those into their working life.

I’ve shared some examples of people who have found more joy in their hobby/job because they have identified what they enjoy and they do that.  I think it may also be helpful to share some examples of people who are less happy.

There are hobbyists who were once quite competitive painters who are no longer able to spend as much time studying and practicing as they used to. They have demanding jobs/schoolwork, or family members who need care. That is not only understandable, it’s commendable to sacrifice hobby time and put those priorities first. Sometimes people choose, consciously or not, to prioritize other leisure activities, and that’s perfect reasonable, too.

Problems arise when people don’t match their expectations to their current actions. I’ve know people who became bitter that they aren’t placing as well in contests, or they aren’t as well known in their favourite hobby communities years after they stopped painting regularly. Even if they maintain their current level of skill, they might feel like they’re falling behind as a competitive painter, because people are constantly pushing the envelope of what is possible at the highest end of our hobby. It’s perfectly understandable to feel frustrated if you aren’t able to do something you love as much as you like! But you’re only making yourself miserable if you dwell on that, or if you expect the same level of the accolades and renown when putting in much less time and effort than you used to.

During the time I was writing this, a video with the message ‘do what you can‘ was recommended to me on YouTube, and I think it has some great advice for any creator. The speaker’s personal interest is sewing, but you can insert painting wherever she talks about sewing (or being a YouTube creator, or running a business) and the advice holds true. I enjoy this woman’s calm, rational approach to challenges and big projects, and I admire that she continues to post on YouTube despite receiving a lot of criticism about her vocal impediment.