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When the judges were giving feedback at the 2021 edition of the MSP Open at ReaperCon, I realized that a number of the questions being asked were specific to the structure of the contest and the judging of medals. I love the open show format of the MSP Open, but how it’s structured isn’t especially intuitive to grasp in some respects. There are also some nuances to the medal placements that we have not been able to make as clear as we might like. I want to try to answer some of the questions people have.
If you are interested in more information on the feedback about your miniature(s) you may have received, I have written articles going over the most common issues that we see when giving feedback. There are several, but one important one covers presentation and general issues, and another other discusses purely paint related concerns.
If you’re not very familiar with the open show format and/or painting contests in general, I recommend that you read this overview of contest terminology article first. I also want to note that while some of the points I am discussing in this article may pertain to other open show events, many of my answers here are specific to the format of the MSP Open at ReaperCon.
The awards table just before the MSP Opens award ceremony began at ReaperCon 2021. Winners had to supply their own water and clipboards though. ;->
Q: Bonze X entry is notably better/worse than Bronze Y entry.
A: For this first answer, I’m assuming that you’re comparing figures within the same category, like two figures from Painters, I’ll address comparisons between categories in another FAQ below. First off, you’re not wrong! In the Bronze medal grouping in particular, there is a decent range of variation. People tend to think of the Bronze – Silver – Gold standards as being like steps in a staircase, or evenly spaced like measurements on a ruler. That is actually not the case. Bronze is a gentle slope that covers an array of experience levels, painting knowledge, and approaches. The level of standards required to place at the Silver level is much more stringent, and the standard to place at the Gold level is quite challenging. Note that there are also sub-levels within each medal category as outlined in the next FAQ.
The diagram below shows the rough proportion of the standards for each medal level.
Q: I get the same medal award every time, I don’t feel like I’m improving.
A: You may be improving more than you realize. Each medal level actually has sub-levels. This is why we recommend that you look at the judges’ scores if you want more information about your placement.
The judged figure for each entrant is assessed by a team of three judges who award it a numerical score – 1 for Certificate, 2 for Bronze, 3 for Silver, 4 for Gold. If all three judges assess a figure at 2, that is a solid placement at the Bronze level. But sometimes one judge awards a different medal level than the others. This can give you information about whether you’re trending upwards, especially if you keep track of it over multiple years of entering.
Here’s a chart to break that breaks down the sub-levels within each medal type.
Another thing to consider is that the saying ‘practice makes perfect’ is a bit misleading. Continuing to spend years painting in the same way you always have is rarely enough to propel a painter at the Bronze level to the Silver or especially Gold level, regardless of how often you paint. Significant improvement generally requires focused study (in person classes, video tutorials, books, personal feedback, etc.) and then deliberate and extensive practice of the techniques and ideas you’ve studied. In particular, it is helpful to identify one or two of your weaker areas and focus on improving those for a time, and then switch to another one, and so on. It is pretty much impossible to successfully work on getting good at everything at once. It’s also exhausting. Another helpful tool for improving your painting is to improve your skills at assessing and critiquing the work of other people, both those you admire and those more similar to your own level. Doing so can help you identify how to better apply techniques and colours, and also helps you improve your ability to evaluate your own work. Painting and sculpting are half craft, and half developing a better eye and understanding of how best to apply that craft.
On the other hand, keep in mind that you aren’t obligated to take classes, or work to improve, or do anything other than what you most enjoy doing. Some people genuinely enjoy learning and constantly striving to improve their work, although even those who choose this path suffer periods of frustration and disappointment. Other people get more satisfaction out of painting in a more relaxing way after work/school, or creating fun, but not necessarily amazing, figures to populate their game tables or share as gifts for friends. Neither approach to the hobby is superior to the other, and I know very happy hobbyists in both camps. However, you do need to be aware of what you really enjoy doing in your hobby time. If you’re someone who prefers to paint/sculpt in a casual, more relaxed manner, but you are also expecting to steadily move up in the medal ranks, you are creating some frustration for yourself by not matching your actions to your goals (or vice versa).
Q: The painting of a Bronze/Silver/Gold in Open or Diorama seems like a different level than a Bronze/Silver/Gold in Painters.
A: Again, good eye, this is absolutely true! All of the categories in the MSP Open are assessed using the same five criteria: Difficulty, Creativity, Workmanship, Painting Skill, and Presentation. But each of those criteria are weighted differently in in each of the categories. There is a numerical breakdown on the MSP Open rules site, and the judges also reference this breakdown when making their decisions. The ReaperCon website includes an archive of photos of every entry since 2012, so you can scan through entries in a category for the past few years to get examples of what was entered into which, and how that entry placed. (Look for the Painting Contest drop down menu at the top of the page. This may not work on mobile.)
Painters: Painting Skill is the primary criteria considered, and is weighted at 70% of the overall assessment of the piece. Painting skill is only 30% of the consideration in both Open and Diorama. A figure can be be awarded Silver or even Gold in those categories with a more modest level of paint job than the standard expected in Painters. (There is more information on the role of a figure’s base in Painters in another FAQ towards the bottom of this article.)
EXAMPLE: The stock figure has a wand in one hand. I replaced this with a familiar, which also required removing the original base of the familiar. This is a very minor conversion. I constructed a larger base which included mushrooms I sculpted and the addition of some rocks and brass etched ferns on the back. Those construction elements are also pretty minor. This piece is not in the spirit of the Open category, and would best be entered in Painters.
Diorama: Story and characterization are as important to this category as paint or sculpting. The stronger the story, the better. Creatively compressing the characters and action into a tight scene is better than aiming for something strictly realistic in size dimensions or overwhelming the viewer with a ton of characters and scenic elements. Think of it as making a 3D movie poster or book cover, or a major story panel in a comic book. You need the viewer to grasp your story/vignette after a few seconds of looking at the piece. Achieving the higher medal levels also requires strong workmanship and presentation skills. (Most open format shows do not include a Diorama category. It was added to the MSP Open to reflect the unique interests and focus of the audience at the MSP Open.)
EXAMPLE: For the piece below I had to swap in a hand from another figure (because I lost the original), and I sculpted some rubble. As you can see in the finished pictures below, I later added a second skeleton, and some ground work to mesh everything together. While this involved more sculpting, conversion, and construction work than in my Painters example, this is a fairly minimal amount of sculpting and construction compared to the standard expected in Open. Since it’s painted to a high standard I might receive a Bronze medal, but the piece is not really in the spirit of the category. However, this piece does tell a story, so it would be suitable to enter in Diorama. If I already had a more elaborate entry for Diorama, this would also be appropriate to enter in Painters.
Open: Workmanship is worth 30% of the assessment, and Painting Skill is worth 30%. The Gold standard here is a competently painted entry of a figure that is either completely scratch sculpted/heavily converted on a simple base, and/or a significantly converted figure on a more complex base. Open is usually the best choice for non-miniature OOAK (one of a kind) entries. Over the years we have had some wonderfully creative entries including a pendant, a constructed/sculpted abstract sculpture, stuffed animals/puppets, a figure set into a pocket watch, and more. The category is intended to showcase sculpting and construction skills more than painting skills. (Although the first two criteria are equally weighted, much of the assessment for Difficulty, Creativity, and Presentation involves more sculpting/construction than painting.) A head/weapon swap or a simple sculpted addition of a few pouches or similar is not really in the spirit of the Open category, even if such a figure is on a somewhat elaborate base. If you would like your basing skills to be considered more highly, we recommend that you construct your base and paint your figure(s) as a story or vignette and enter your piece into the Diorama category.
NOTE: The judges are not familiar with every miniature that exists, nor even all of the Reaper line. It is very helpful to include a WIP picture of the piece after you’ve finished sculpting and construction but before you’ve primed or painted. Or at the very least to list the figure(s) you used and the changes you’ve made to them on your entry card. If your work is of such high quality that we can’t tell what you added/changed, we may not be able to detect all of the work you’ve done to give you credit for it!
EXAMPLE: For the piece below, I did a head swap for the groom, using the head of the figure on the top left and the body of the lower left. I also had to chisel away the hat and repair the suit. I sculpted a yarmulke onto the groom. For the bride, I removed the belt from the original sculpt and sculpted on a sash. I modified her empty hand to appear as if clutching a bouquet of flowers. Both figures had one hand removed and resculpted to better appear as if they were interacting together. I used stamps to create the texture patterns on the floor. The canopy was constructed from beads, skewers, plasticard/styrene and mesh cloth coated in white glue to form it into my desired shape.
This level of conversion and construction makes this piece appropriate to enter into the Open category. Neither the sculpting/construction nor the painting is top notch, so I wouldn’t expect a Gold, but it’s suitable for Open. Since the piece tells a story, it would also be well-suited for entry in Diorama. I would likely choose to enter it in Open as this is the most extensive conversion/construction I have ever done.
The picture below that shows the original figure and the piece before painting is the kind of thing that is super helpful to the Open judges. (And it also helps viewers appreciate your work more too!) You can include multiple pictures that reveal your components and sculpting/modifications in more detail, or you can write out the changes and additions like I did in the previous paragraph, but something like this is what we need to be able to identify all the work you’ve done.
The mesh cloth did not paint up the way I expected, so I later went in and replaced it with tissue paper soaked in white glue instead. After painting I added flowers to the bride’s hair and gave her a bouquet, and the crushed glass under the groom’s foot, which are also elements of construction compatible with the spirit of the Open category.
Here’s another example. On this figure, I sculpted straps on the dress and shoes on her feet, and added an additional hair decoration. I sculpted the candle and wax drips, and constructed the table from wood. To finish the piece after painting I added a bouquet of flowers and a distressed paper flyer. This would be suitable to enter into Open, ideally with a before painting picture like the one on the left, since this is an older figure that many people might not be familiar with. This piece was designed as a vignette of a scene from The Colour Purple movie. It would also be possible to enter this into Diorama, but since the scene somewhat depends on the viewer recognizing the film scene, I might prefer to enter it into Open. If I did enter it in Diorama and I included the photos, the judges would have enough information to decide to move it to Open if they feel I would score better there.
Ordinance: Painting Skill, and the Workmanship involved in assembling complex kits and depicting the vehicle/weapon within an appropriate environment (including weathering and similar) are significant criteria in this category. Note that any figures or creatures included on the piece are essentially considered as scenic elements would be in another category. Even the most skillfully painted of these has a very minor contribution to the assessment of the piece as a whole.
EXAMPLE: The piece below includes a cannon, which makes it suitable for entry into the Ordinance category. My work on the skeleton would not have a lot of bearing on my placement level, the ordinance figure is the main portion assessed. While the way I painted it isn’t terrible (I used reference photos for the cannon itself), I would probably get dinged pretty hard on the Workmanship criteria since I assembled the cannon the wrong way around on the wagon. (I haven’t painted any true Ordinance entries to have a better example, sorry!)
Q: I couldn’t get feedback from my specific judges because they weren’t at their desk when I was looking for them or they had long lines of people. Or I couldn’t get feedback at all because I had to leave soon after the awards.
A: The judges do our best to give feedback to everyone we can, but as the attendance of the convention grows, and the number of entries into the contest grows,, that can sometimes be a little more challenging. The judges also have classes to teach or other events they may be involved in, and they’re humans who get tired and need meals. Serving as a judge adds between 5-10 hours of additional duties at the convention.
But it’s important to note that consulting the people who judged your entry is not the only way to get feedback on your work! You also don’t have to wait until after the contest results have been announced to get feedback. Part of the role of all of the artists in Artist Alley is to give people feedback on their pieces. You can start requesting feedback from people as soon as the convention opens on Thursday morning. Don’t be worried that it will affect the judging of your entries if you get feedback from an artist who ends up on the team judging your piece. If someone has given you such extensive feedback that they feel they can’t assess your piece without bias, they will recuse themselves from judging it. We have alternate judges available to step in as necessary for just this kind of reason. Asking for feedback in advance is the best answer for those who plan to leave Saturday night or early Sunday morning, but it’s a great idea for everyone.
If you do wait until after the contest to request feedback, you don’t have to ask only your specific judges. If one of them has a long line, look around Artist Alley for someone else who isn’t busy right now. You can continue to try to connect with your chosen judge, but if you aren’t able to, you’ll at least have some feedback to work with. There tends to be a lot of commonality with the issues we see at the Certificate and Bronze level. If you place at those levels, any of the judges or the artists as a whole are likely to identify and discuss with you the same elements that your judges would.
Whoever or whenever you ask, it is helpful to consult at least two or three people if you can. Even if each identifies the same strengths and weaknesses in your piece, they may each have different different ideas of how best to address those or different ways of explaining the kinds of things you can do to improve in the future. Everyone explains things a little differently, and everyone understands things a little differently, so it’s helpful to get multiple viewpoints.
I took this picture on a Saturday morning when many artists were teaching classes, but there are still several artists available to answer questions and give feedback. This is just one of four rows of artists, and in 2021 when we had fewer than usual.
Q: I had one piece I really wanted feedback on so I entered only that one and showed the rest of my pieces as “Display Only”.
A: I think this is the first year we’ve had people do this, and it was a bit perplexing to the contest administration and judges. For me, the fact that you can enter several pieces in one category instead of feeling like you have to try to game the system and figure out which figure or painting style is likely to get you the best placement is one of the biggest appeals of the Open show system! Which piece is chosen for judging is often surprising to entrants, and something we get a lot of questions about. (The answers to which I’ll cover in a separate FAQ below.)
As I outlined above, you can ask for feedback from any of the instructors in Artist Alley at any time during the show. That includes asking your judges why they chose the piece they did, and asking for feedback on any of your pieces, not just a judged entry. You can get the feedback you want and still enter multiple figures to give yourself a better chance for the best possible medal placement.
Q: Why did the judges pick this piece to assess? I don’t think it is my best work.
A: This is a very common question. And I get it! I have several times been surprised at the figure an Open show judge team picks to assess from my display. There are two aspects to consider here. One is how and why the judges make their choices, and the other is additional factors that affect how artists might feel about their entries. (Remember, if you want feedback on a piece that wasn’t judged, feel free to head to Artist Alley to get some!)
On the judges end, we are always working to make the choice in your favour. We pick the piece from your entries that we will score the highest. That choice isn’t always obvious, and it isn’t always immediately universal to all the members of a judging team. Discussions about which piece to choose are often more contentious than any other aspect of judging. When judges like different pieces, we discuss it, with each judge pointing out the merits of their favourite and issues that might make them a little less enthusiastic about another judge’s preference.
After a few minutes of spirited discussion, we stop and ask ourselves this question: would I give piece X a different score than piece Y. Most of the time the answer is no. Whatever level an artist paints/sculpts at tends to apply to most of the work they do, or at least the work that they choose to bring to enter into a contest. If we are in agreement that all of the pieces from an entrant are of equal merit for the judging criteria in that category, we try to choose one that showcases your work best to viewers, has a great title, or in some other way stands out a little. We try to pick the one we think you would have liked us to pick, but we don’t always get it right.
Occasionally one of the judges does feel that they would give a more positive score to piece X than piece Y. When that happens the other two judges agree to judge that figure too. On the rare occasion that multiple judges on a team have strong opinions about different pieces, we keep talking it out until we come to an agreement.
If that seems like we’re being cavalier or off-handed, I assure you that is not the case. Remember that we are judging not just your entries, but upwards of a thousand entries from hundreds of artists. We have a limited number of judges and deadlines to meet. We would rather spend less of our limited time deciding which of your figures to judge and more time actually looking at the piece we choose to judge in detail!
So that is why the judges do what they do. But it’s also worth thinking about why you may have feelings about their choice. Often people who feel disappointed expected a particular piece to be chosen because they were trying out more complex and challenging techniques on it – you’re trying to push your non-metallic metal or paint source lighting or something like that. We artists often tend to place less value on work we’ve done that didn’t feel difficult to make. If it felt easy, then we can’t have been using our very best effort making it, right? However, sometimes something feels easier to do because we’re using skills we’ve already mastered. It’s not necessarily that the task really is easy, it’s that we’re more practiced and comfortable performing that task. Whereas if we’re trying out new skills and techniques, the first few times we do them we’re beginners again. The skill may be considered ‘higher level’, but maybe our current mastery of it isn’t quite yet.
Occasionally you may also produce what I call a ‘happy marriage’ piece. This is one where your style, the techniques you used, the subject matter, and your colour choices all come together to make something that just really works, regardless of how easy or hard it felt to make it. If you post a piece online and it gets a lot more likes and shares than your usual work and you’re a bit puzzled by that, chances are it’s a happy marriage miniature, and it’s happened to all of us occasionally!
I think the other reason people are surprised or upset about which piece was judged is the difference in experience between being the maker of something and being the viewer of something. Viewers see only the piece before them. They may bring some emotions and preferences along with that, like maybe you used their favourite colour or the figure is a subject they really love. (Contest judges are trained put those kinds of feelings aside to the best of our ability and assess the pieces as neutrally as we can.)
As the maker of something, you can never really look at it through other people’s eyes. You’ve looked at your piece too long, too hard, and through all different stages to ever be able to view it with a purely neutral eye. In addition, your experiences and emotions are wrapped up into your assessment of it. Maybe you feel very excited about this piece because it’s the first thing you’ve finished after an art block. Maybe you feel protective of this figure because it was made as a gift for someone you deeply care about, or during a very emotional period of your life. Maybe you think the piece that was chosen didn’t deserve it for similar emotional reasons – it didn’t come out the way you wanted, or it was painted during a tough time in your life. The judges, and viewers in general, can’t know what you know or feel what you feel about the piece or your life circumstances. There often is emotion in our work, and viewers respond to that, but the complex tapestry of feelings and life experiences that goes into the making of a contest level piece (or anything you’ve spent a lot of time on) isn’t readily apparent to the outside viewer.
I imagine most people who’ve entered an open style contest or who post their work on social media have had this experience. I certainly have! I’ve painted pieces where I felt throughout the process that I was levelling up and addressing the most common critiques of my work, only to have those pieces receive the same old feedback. I’ve had pieces I thought were quite skillfully done that neither judges nor viewers much cared for. And there are other figures where I believe I failed to achieve basic principles that have gotten tons more likes and shares than pieces I’ve done that I like the most or feel have more artistic merit.
Below is a picture of my display at the World Expo open show in 2017. I originally only intended to bring the four pieces to the right, but a friend suggested I add another to have an odd number of figures in my display, and I picked the one on the left. The giantess is covered in freehand and has a much more elaborate base than any of the others. I had expected that one to be judged, partly because the viewers and judges of many open shows are accustomed to figures of a larger scale. The figure on the lower left is still the most popular of anything I’ve posted online. The figure on the bottom right won a previous contest that it was entered into. The judges chose to assess the one on the far left, which I had painted eight years previous and hadn’t even planned to bring originally. I did have some feelings about that for a bit. Had I really not improved at all in eight years? But I decided not to dwell on it. The judges chose what they did in my favour. Now that some years have gone by and I’ve continued to study and learn, I understand that there are areas where the older piece succeeds over the others.
Q: I was told the base of the figure didn’t matter in Painters, but the feedback from my judges included a lot of commentary about improving my bases, what gives?
A: Painting skill assessment is 70% of what is considered in the Painters category. Workmanship and Creativity are each worth 10%. Difficulty and Presentation are each worth 5%. The base of your figure can factor into the consideration in those four latter criteria, and even give you more scope to show off your painting skills. These are some likely scenarios:
Base Factors that can Negatively Affect Scoring
* The figure is visibly floating on a pin or has one leg not firmly glued down – lowers Workmanship and Presentation
* Basing materials like sand, gravel, or stones are unpainted – lowers Workmanship and Presentation, also reflects a little on Painting Skill since this is an area where you could be using to demonstrate the ability to paint different kinds of materials and textures
Base Factors that are Neutral to Scoring
* Figure is on a plain black base, clear flying stand, wood plinth or similar with no basing elements added
* Figure is on its integral base or a simple stone/wood/sand texture base that is competently painted
* There are some more complex basing elements and everything is competently painted, but maybe it’s not the most seamless or perfect base construction
Base Factors that can Positively Affect Scoring
* The base is well-constructed and competently painted
* The elements present on the base add additional opportunities for the painter to demonstrate skill painting different materials and textures, or to demonstrate different kinds of painting techniques or effects. This is particularly helpful if the figure itself is very limited in materials/textures, like an elemental or statue that is made up of only one or two kinds of material.
Neutral or even negative scoring on a base occasionally affects placement at Certificate or Bronze level. If your judges scored you 2 2 1 or 2 2 2, it is very unlikely that you would have earned a Silver Medal if your figure had had a different base. If your judges scored you 2 2 3 and your base had elements that I listed as negatively affecting scoring, it is possible that you might have been able to earn a Silver with a neutral or more elaborate base.
I entered these as a single entry in 2017. The figures are sculpted with those bases, I just painted them. I was awarded Gold. Many of the figures I’ve won Gold with have been on integral or simple bases.
I have won multiple Gold medals with figures that just had standard Reaper integral bases, or minimal scratch sculpted basing. I even won enough votes for Best in Show votes in 2014 to place second with a stock base. I’m well-known for simple or even kind of bad bases, but I do paint them up as well as I can! ;->
I won second place Best in Show with this figure in 2014. It is also an example of a piece that other people gave me more credit for than I thought I merited (Largely this is because I just followed the colour scheme in Izzy’s design art and there wasn’t any particularly fancy painting other than the base being a lot of NMM. I think its popularity was due as much or more to Bobby Jackson’s sculpting and Izzy “Talin” Collier’s fine design work.) The judges chose to assess another piece in my display, which is something that I had put a lot of care and thought into painting and that I really loved, but the voters chose this one.
I can’t speak to all judges, but I am very unlikely award a Silver score to a base with unpainted basing elements, regardless of the quality of painting on the figure. I consider painting the stone/sand/wood/etc. on the base to be in scale with the rest of the figure to fall under the umbrella of the Painting Skill criteria. I would have no problem awarding a Silver score to a figure on a plain/clear/wood plinth or base. Your judges are mentioning basing factors to you because a competently constructed base and one which offers you additional painting opportunities can help push you into the Silver level, and is pretty much required to place at the Gold level.
This Cersei figure from Darksword Miniatures was painted by Marike Reimer. It demonstrates how even a fairly simple base can expand your painting options. Marike sculpted the back of the skirt to flow over the stones, which allowed her to paint the transparency effect on the dress over an additional material. She also added regal pillows that contributed to the characterization of the figure and the composition of the piece as a whole.
Q: Why do some people’s entry displays have photos and/or documents next to them?
A: Entrants are welcome to submit related material with an entry. Some share WIP pictures, some talk about their inspirations, and some may share historical or other facts related to their entry. Entrants are also welcome to jot some information like that down on their entry card. We particularly encourage entrants in the Open category to give us more information about what sculpting changes and additions they’ve made, with before/after pictures if possible. When entrants are very skilled we might miss the changes you’ve made and give you less credit than you deserve! It’s impossible for the judges to know every miniature and what it looks like stock out of the catalog, or even just to be that familiar with the Reaper ones. We try to do some research if we have something to go on to do it, but we just don’t have a lot of time to spend trying to remember the names of figures and looking for catalog pictures of them online.
At the Atlanta AMFS open show, I included this card with my entry, to give more information on the historical figure Bessie Coleman. (I forgot to take a picture of my display at the show, I took this photo later at home.)
Q: What is ‘Display Only’?
A: When you set up a display for your entries, you can also include pieces designated Display Only. These figures are available for everyone to enjoy viewing, but they are not assessed by the judges. They may be figures you’ve entered previously or work you want to safely show off to people. It’s a way for everyone to put out their work to be appreciated similar to the way the instructors in Artist Alley do. If you have a commission service or a miniature-related social media show/page, it’s a way to display more of your work and include a business card with your contact information.
Figures in this Post
Tristan the Loremistress is available in metal.
The Sorceress was a Kickstarter exclusive from Minx Miniatures and long out of production.
I believe the scenic base was produced by Reaper and is also out of production.
The RPG Geek is available as part of a pack of Townsfolk: Geeks in metal.
Tasker, Henchman is available in metal.
Tinley, Female Wizard is available in metal.
The African Queen is available in metal.
The Soul Cannon is available in metal.
The Frost Giant Queen is available in Bones plastic.
Bourbon Street Sophie is available in metal.
Treasure Rocky is available in Bones plastic.
This version of Tara the Silent was a special addition and is out of production.
Ar-Fienel was a limited edition figure and is out of production.
The High Rollers are available in Bones plastic.
Sheriff Sophie is available in metal.
Cersei Lannister is available in metal.
Tillie Fighter Pilot is available in metal.