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How to Test Colour Schemes: Fathom

PDF Patreon copies of this post include higher res photos and few work-in-progress pictures.

Working out the colours to paint a miniature can be tough! I want to share the process I used to choose the colour scheme for the figure below, as well as a few other ideas you could try for testing colours. Fathom is my character in a Dungeons and Dragons game on Twitch with some of the other Reaper artists. I wanted to try to choose a colour scheme that reflected the character well, and which would also look good on the fantastic terrain boards Knight Heart Gaming puts together for our streams.

Fathom front 600Fathom the Tiefling warlo… magic user with a mysterious patron.

I know a lot of us find colour to be very challenging to use. You’ve surely had a situation where you pick out a colour to paint on your miniature that looks one way when first applied, and a different way once you’ve finished painting the figure. If you use white primer, a colour you use in the early stages may seem fairly dark when you first apply it over the white primer, but once you paint the rest of the figure it looks more medium in value or even too light. The reverse is true with black primer, where something might seem too light until the whole piece comes together and you discover it’s not. You might notice something similar with some of your favourite colour recipes. You might use a set of colours for wood or gold non-metallic metal that looks good on most of the miniatures you paint, but find that there is a miniature or two where the colours look more washed out or more garish than usual. This happens because the way that we perceive colours is always relative to the other colours around them.

If the way colours appear is always relative, how are you ever supposed to know how to pick successful colour combinations?! I think it helps to be aware that this is just how colours work. You can still paint using on the fly colour choices and recipes, but you have to accept that there might be times when colours don’t jibe as you hoped, or they need to be tweaked a little. It can also help to study colour properties and colour theory and use tools like a colour wheel.

For more important figures that you’re willing to spend a little more time on, it can be very helpful to do some colour studies or tests before you begin painting. Making this effort now and then will also help you improve your overall understanding of how to use colour. When you do colour tests, you can test your colours overall, or start by working out a few colours and building from there with trial and error on the miniature. 

IMG 7361

The photo above includes examples of a number of different kinds and methods for colour testing that I’ve used over the years. Some are tests of an overall colour scheme. Others test shadow/wash colours, or colours and brush strokes used to create textures. Some are on paper, others on figures. Some are just colours placed in proximity to one another in the approximate proportions in which they’d appear on the figure. You don’t have to paint a complete test figure or a detailed drawing on paper. Even playing around with some paints on your palette or on a piece of paper before you start painting can give you a lot of useful information! 

Reaper whiteThe Reaper catalogue photo of Churrusina.

There are digital tools you can use, as well. These vary in levels of sophistication and complexity, as well as cost. I decided to use a digital painting method to test colours for my character Fathom, pictured below. I used the Procreate app on my iPad, but as I mentioned, there are a lot of other options for different platforms and budgets. I loaded the unpainted catalog picture of the figure, seen above, into my digital program. I found the photo on the Reaper Miniatures site. Many manufacturers have similar pictures you can use as a starting point for colour tests. I reduced the transparency of the layer with the photograph on it to less than 20%. This gave me a faint image to use as a sort of colouring book outline I could use to test different colours. For Fathom, I went to the extent of painting in some shadow and highlight colours, but even doing some basic block colouring on the main areas would help you get a sense for how your proposed colour scheme works.

Another option would be to print out a catalogue photo like the above and paint colours onto the paper. This has the advantage of allowing you to test the exact paints you’re thinking about using rather than approximating colours in a digital program. If you don’t have access to a good catalogue photo for your figure, you could prime/paint it in grey or white, place an overhead lamp over it, and make your own reference photo. You can see an example of a colour test with physical paint in Marike Reimer’s slideshow of the steps to paint her Crystal Brush winning Kraken Priestess. I used a rough drawing on paper to test an autumn colour scheme for a bard character.

IMG 0296

The photo above shows the colour schemes I tested out for my character Fathom. I ended up painting the figure mostly like the one on the bottom left, but swapped to the shirt colour of the one on the bottom right. It had a touch of green in it, so I felt it would look more harmonious with the reddish skin and red of the cloak. I think the figure on the upper left works really well in terms of being an eye-catching colour scheme, but it did not fit the concept of my character. Fathom has decided to lean in to the stereotypes about tieflings instead of trying to fight them. The upper left colour scheme would have been a great choice if her patron had been more of a fey type.

Here are a couple of more views of the completed paint job on the character. Since this figure was intended for game play, after I took the photos I brushed on gloss sealer for some additional protection, and then sprayed that over with matte sealer for my preferred matte finish. Note that sealer works best if you also take other steps during prep and painting to create a sturdy paint job.

Fathom face

Fathom back 600

Once I finished painting, I sent Fathom off to Frank and Ann of Knight Heart Gaming. They host a Dungeons & Dragons game for some of the Reaper artists on Reaper Miniature’s Twitch channel every other Friday. Frank is a wonderful DM, adept at dealing with the parameters of running an entertaining game in a streaming environment and time limit, and also at dealing with our crazy artist nonsense. I often forget to take screenshots in the midst of the fun role-playing, but here are a couple of shots of Fathom and her compatriots adventuring in the fantastic Knight Heart scenic setups. You can catch up with past episodes on Reaper’s YouTube channel, or via the droll musings of Kay Nimblewit (played by Jen Greenwald on the far right below. Jen also has a great painting oriented blog.)

Fathom ss2

Fathom ss

 

Figures in this Post

Churrusina is available in metal.
Anirion, Elf Wizard is available in Bones USA plastic, clear plastic, or metal.
Isabeau Laroche, Paladin is available in Bones plastic and metal.
Geisha Assassin (colour tested on Isabeau) is available in metal.
Seoni, Iconic Sorceress  is available in Bones plastic.
Male Bard with Lute is available in metal. (Colour scheme on paper.)
Arran Rabin is available in Bones plastic and metal.
Children of the Zodiac, Cancer is available in metal.
Wing from Griffon, available in Bones plastic or metal.

How to Practice Painting

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Is the way you look at your work when you’re trying to study or practice something new different than when you assess your work generally? Should it be? I think the answer is yes! It can be challenging to make that mind shift, but failing to use different metrics to judge our study results means we may not be learning as much or as well as we could.

Banner fullTara the Silent at different stages in the painting process.

In a previous Problem Solving series (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4), I talked through my mental assessments of my work throughout the process of painting a miniature where I was making colour and lighting choices on the fly. My goal for the Tara the Silent figure was to paint a miniature that was as attractive and successful a paint job as I could manage after a bit of a rough start.

When I was painting Anushka, my aim was to practice a new painting approach and demonstrate to myself that I had successfully learned and implemented new information. It may not seem like it on the surface, but that is actually a very different goal than trying to paint a good looking miniature! In both cases I repeatedly reviewed and then revised my paint work. But in each case I was working towards a different goal, and I was using different criteria to judge my success in reaching the goal. 

Anushka comp crAnushka at different stages in the painting process.

I’d like to talk about why it’s useful to approach a study piece differently than general painting, using my experiences painting the Anushka figure as an example. I also want to remind myself about this! I don’t think I do enough focused study like this.

I actually painted Anushka as a study piece in Spring 2019. I edited the WIP pictures and wrote a first draft of this article soon after the painting, but for various reasons it got put aside for a while.

Tsukigoro front 500My painting of Tsukigoro, a larger scale resin figure that we worked on in the workshop I took with Sergio Calvo Rubio.

In the Spring of 2019 I took a weekend workshop with Sergio Calvo Rubio, a fantastic Spanish painter. In addition to his feedback on my figure throughout the workshop, he kindly shared his thoughts on a few other miniatures I had painted. He felt I was a technically proficient painter, but that I wasn’t painting with enough contrast. In particular, I wasn’t painting enough of the small, bright highlights that really help a paint job pop. I have been receiving similar criticism from painters I admire for years! I do try to push for more pop, but in the struggle between a refined result and pop, I find it very challenging to not go overboard refining or smoothing the highlights, which usually dilutes the effect of the pop.

After the workshop, I painted a few practice figures to try to cement what I learned, and to try to figure out how best to apply his approach to the gaming scale figures I paint most often.

Important Note: I will be referencing some of the principles and techniques Sergio teaches in this series, but only insofar as is necessary for readers to understand the gist of what I’m saying. It is not my goal to share all of the material from Sergio’s workshop, and I will not answer questions about his techniques or methods. If you’re interested in learning more about how Sergio paints, I highly recommend checking out his Patreon or his YouTube channel, or attending one of his workshops if you have the opportunity. 

My reference materials when practicing included my notes and practice figures from the workshop and a couple of previous classes I had taken with Sergio at AdeptiCon. I also have the good fortune to have in my possession a couple of demo figures that Sergio painted as examples for classes. This allowed me to take comparison photos of Sergio’s examples and my practice figure, which will also allow you to compare my attempt to his demos so you can make your own assessment of how well my study went.

You can see a few steps of Sergio’s process to paint the figure on the right. There is a video demonstration of how Sergio painted the non-metallic sword on the figure on the left.

Sergio figures fullThese two figures were painted by Sergio Calvo Rubio for class demonstrations.

When I painted Tara the Silent, my goal was to paint as good looking a figure as I could in a fairly tight deadline (for me). My initial colour selection didn’t work, so I got off to a bit of a rough start. Some of painting process involved trying to salvage as much of my previous work as I could, and tweaking things to look as good as possible. So my analysis concentrated on this question: does this look good, or do I need to change or tweak something? I think many of us paint day-to-day with that kind of mindset.

However, I don’t think assessing our work with the question does this look good is a helpful approach to take when to studying something new. Maybe you’re studying a new method, like I was with this figure. Maybe you’re trying to learn a new technique like wet blending or layering. Maybe you want to simulate a texture like worn leather or woven cloth. Maybe you’ve seen a particular colour or overall look on another figure that you like and you want to figure out how the artist did it. In all of those cases, you’re trying to model your work after a specific reference point.

I think the question you need to ask yourself when judging your success with that kind of study is not whether your work looks good, but rather: Does this look like my reference? If not, what are the differences?

If the answer is your work doesn’t really look much like your reference, you need to try to do a deeper comparison between your reference and your practice paint to try to analyze exactly what the differences are. You will likely find differences in the level of darkness and lightness, or in the location and size of the darkest and lightest areas. You might notice differences in shapes and patterns of texture. You might discover that the instructor you’re studying uses paint that is more or less fluid than yours for blending, or uses a different size or shape of brush. Training your eye to spot those differences and training your brain to analyze them more deeply can help you make bigger leaps in your skills than any specific technique.

We are so used to assessing our work by the standard of whether something looks good (enough) and whether we like it (or at least can we live with it) that it can be really challenging to shift how we analyze our work. It’s really easy to fall back into just painting as we always do instead of pushing ourselves to be sure we’re actively learning and experimenting and studying. Even though I’ve spent a lot of time learning, and teaching, I experienced exactly that problem while painting Anushka!

I think it’s entirely possible to paint a study piece that successfully demonstrates your understanding and application of something, but which doesn’t look super attractive, polished, or finished. It really is two different metrics.

An easy example of that is contrast. If you’ve been told you need to push your shadow/highlight contrast, you will likely find that when you try to practice doing that, your work may not look as good to you. The transitions may look rough, or even stark. If you are only looking at your practice piece(s) with the question does this look good in mind, you will feel as if you failed. If you painted darker shadows than usual and lighter highlights than usual, you did not fail, you achieved your stated goal! You might need to continue practicing painting with higher contrast for a while to accustom your eye to it, and then set your next goal to be painting higher contrast with more attractive transitions between values. To ask yourself to apply higher contrast values of paint AND do so with flawless transitions on the first few miniatures you try it with is unrealistic! When you study and work to learn something new, make sure you’re assessing your progress in understanding and applying the something new, not judging every single thing about the figure.

The flip side of that is that you can paint something that does look good but which does not demonstrate that you have understood and applied the thing you’re trying to learn. This is what happened to me while painting Anushka.

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In the workshop, Sergio had us paint from dark to light. I have very rarely painted this way. Just a few times in other classes I’ve taken, with certain colours like black, and when painting areas that are recessed and hard to reach. The advantage of starting with the darkest colour is that you create your deep shadows and lining with your basecoat. (Assuming you have the brush control to not slop into the crevices, which I have not always had.)

Most of the time when I paint I start with the midtone, then paint the shadows, and then paint highlights. I have found that it is easier for me to identify the correct placement for shadows and highlights with this method. It also makes it easier for me make sure I leave enough of the midtone colour apparent, which is important to establishing the texture and overall colour of the material, and can also help create more contrast.

Another reason I prefer starting with the midtone colour is that I worry that if I start with the darkest shadow colour, I will be more more likely to paint most of the areas in a similar midtone value instead of separating sections of the miniature by starting with different value midtones for each. Even when using the method I’m used to I don’t always get this right, as you can see in the example below.

Erli original cr 1000

One of the reasons the paint scheme on the right is more effective than that on the left is that adjacent areas of the figure differ in the value of their midtones. You can see that more clearly when the picture is converted to black and white as below. A deeper analysis of the differences between these two figures is available.

Erli original cr bw

To better understand and study Sergio’s method, I followed his approach and started with the darkest colours for each area of the figure. I forgot to take the photo until after I had painted the green pantaloons, but it should still show the overall idea.

Anushka wip1a basecoat front fullAnushka painted with the darkest shadow colours for each area.

One of the things that distinguishes many high level paint jobs is a strongly painted light source. Often these are painted with the common light from above direction, but with stronger contrast between deepest shadows and brightest highlights. Others may be painted with a more directional light source shining more brightly on one side of the figure, which creates darker shadows on the other side. Sergio’s usual approach is less fussed about painting a precise light source direction than some high level painters. He aims for more of a stage light effect, as if the figure is standing on stage with a spotlight aimed at them. He paints stronger light and brighter saturation on the figure’s head and the centre of its torso, and uses duller, darker colours on the sides and extremities. He prioritizes creating a strong focal point and making the figure interesting to look at, rather than aiming for a super realistic rendition of the light and shadow.

I mention this because it is a great example of how there is not only one style or approach to painting that is recognized and rewarded in the miniature world. I often see comments from people complaining that only one painting approach gets recognition, particularly after the results of a painting contest are announced. There have been times or specific contests when there may have been a grain of truth to that, but for years now I’ve seen a very diverse range of styles recognized both by contests and miniature enthusiasts. In most contests I’ve seen, the elements that factor into top level recognition include the obvious factor of advanced paint manipulation skills, but also a well developed artistic eye, and the courage to commit to one’s vision. In the case of light, whether a painter is trying to replicate real light source reference pictures or aiming for more of a ‘make it look cool’ illustrative approach, they need to commit to their vision for the light and create a high level of contrast. Painting a high level of contrast while also painting smooth blends, or cool textures (including comic book style), or cel shading or whatever other approach challenges both your hand and your courage.

Please note that I am definitely not saying that there is no point to exploring more creative styles of paint application and/or lighting approach if a painter’s skills are more beginner or intermediate level, or if working on a quicker tabletop piece! I just think it’s helpful to understand that the competition side of our hobby rewards skill of execution as much or more as creativity of concept. The highest level painters have literally spent years studying traditional art and/or learning through experience. It’s not really reasonable to expect that the first few pieces someone tries to paint with an advanced lighting technique or textures or whatever is going to instantly catapult them to gold level.

In the year or two preceding the workshop, I had spent a lot of time practicing painting more directional light. I also focused on portraying my light source both more correctly and more evocatively. One example of that is the way I painted Ziba the Efreeti. I created lighting reference photos and I followed them to the extent of painting the cast shadows on her. What I had been focused on prior to the workshop was in many ways a completely different approach to what Sergio was teaching us, so it was a bit of a mind shift for me.

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First Study Session

Regardless of your approach to the light, when working on a textured surface (or one you’re painting to appear textured) the goal is to build up both the appearance of the texture AND the placement of lighter and darker areas that will evoke your imaginary light source. I painted the green pantaloons as a smooth cloth texture with a moderate level of contrast. They’re in a low interest area and mostly to the sides of the body, so with Sergio’s approach they shouldn’t stand out particularly. Next up was the top and overskirt. I decided to paint these areas as one piece of clothing, and with a worn leather texture. I decided that, but that’s not what I painted…

Anushka wip2b front full

Anushka wip2 back full

The top ended up looking like a different colour and material than the skirt. That did not have a lot of bearing on the lessons I was trying to learn, so I decided not to worry about it. Sergio’s main critique of my work was that it was technically very proficient, but it did not have enough contrast. In particular, it completely lacked the strong edge and spot highlights that help a figure pop off the shelf/tabletop and grab the viewer’s attention. These are also an important tool a painter uses to draw the viewer’s eye to the key focal points the painter wants them to zero in on.

So how well did I do with the study goals of painting strong texture and using strong contrast to make the figure pop? I did not make this assessment immediately after painting. I waited until the next day. I think it is very helpful to step away from something you’re working on overnight, or at least for several hours. It allows your eyes to reset, and gives your brain a chance to shift from creation mode to editing mode. As you’ll see below, my impressions of my work while I was painting versus my impressions of it the next day were very different!

The top, while painting: I felt like I was really pushing the highlights and going quite bright, and doing a good job concentrating the brightest areas in the centre of the figure’s cylinder as Sergio does. 

The top, next day: Huh, where did those bright pops of highlight go? I swear I worked on them! (And as a side point, I realized that if the back of something is armour, so is the front, so I needed to paint the chest plate area to match the armour sections, not the skirt or the sleeves.)

The skirt, while painting: I think I’m getting a texture that is less fiddly and small than I usually paint for leather. It’s a little darker overall than the top, but since the skirt is on the bottom half of the figure and attention should be focused on the face and upper torso, that should work out well.

The skirt, next day: This texture part looks pretty good. But I almost completely failed to create any overall sense of light or bring out the forms of the different skirt folds.

My assessment of the skirt is an example of the difference in analyzing success in studying something versus success in achieving an attractive result. If this were something I was painting on deadline, I would probably leave the skirt basically as it is and just build up a few more highlights on it to create a little more form. The texture looks pretty good, it photographs well, and it fits the character and colour scheme.

For a piece that was intended a practice of a specific approach, I needed to assess whether I demonstrated that learned and understood the lesson. The way I painted the skirt at this stage did not demonstrate that, so I needed to try again, possibly even repainting the area to start from scratch. (If you are incorporating practice into a project like painting an army, another option is to call it good on this figure and then try again with the next one.)

I also took a moment to ask myself how did I go so wrong with this attempt, and I think those thoughts are worth sharing with you as well.

Fuzzy Goal/Intention
I just sat down and started painting. It would have been a good idea to study my reference figures and photos right before and even while I was painting, so the result I was aiming for was fresh in my mind.

Distractions
I had an episode of a TV show running in the background while I was painting. When I’m doing routine tasks and things I’m proficient at, it is helpful to listen to a video or audiobook. It distracts me if my back is sore or I’m getting bored, and keeps me painting longer. But if I’m trying something new or working on a technique I find challenging, I need to minimize distractions so I can keep my brain actively focused and concentrating on the task at hand.

The combination of those two factors made it very easy to go into autopilot and just paint the way I usually do. Painting on autopilot is useful for routine tasks, but it’s a dangerous trap if you’re trying to learn something new.

For those who might be having difficulty seeing what I’m talking about, here’s the figure I’m working on next to a couple of Sergio’s WIP figures from classes he’s given.

Anushka wip2d comps front full

My practice figure is in the centre. Class demo figures painted by Sergio Calvo Rubio are to the left and right.

Anushka wip2c comps back full

Don’t despair if you’re having trouble seeing everything I’m pointing out. It takes time, practice, and concerted effort to start building your critical eye. There is very little material related to training critique ability in our hobby. I did not have a strong eye at all when I started out, and I know that there is a lot that I still miss. Being conscious of the importance of an artist’s eye and trying to cultivate it has immensely helped me in my quest to improve my painting level, and I am confident it will continue to help me. I wish I had been more deliberate about practicing things I’d learned in classes and workshops and aiming to build up my eye much earlier in my painting career.

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Second Study Session

For my second attempt, I set my intention and reviewed my examples before beginning to paint, and minimized distractions while painting.

I think I was much closer to goal this second time. I don’t know if it’s perfect by any means. It might even be overly textured, and there is still more emphasis on texture over value and form, but I think it’s better. The form of the skirt in the back view particularly is much more apparent.

Anushka wip3 back full

I thought I should go in and glaze in some more contrast and/or tone down the texture on the skirt, but I decided that it would be best to work on more of the figure and see how it came together as a whole before making that decision. Sometimes one of the hardest things for me in painting is to just let something be until the figure is almost finished and I can assess how the colours, values, and other decisions work together before trying to tweak anything. I find it can save a lot of time if I can resist that temptation! If I am painting one section at a time and trying to make each individual section ‘perfect’ while I working on it, I may end up fixing something that doesn’t need it or applying the wrong fix and end up having to spend more time at the end making tweaks than I would have otherwise.

This is one of the reasons that many artists start with an initial quick sketch of the main areas of the figure before preceding to refining individual areas. That is the approach that Sergio took in his class demonstration goblin figure. He started with the basic colours of the figure, then roughed in some highlights, and then continued to refine them. This approach allows painters to assess the success of their colour choices and overall approach for the miniature after a relatively short investment of time, so they aren’t losing a lot of work if they have to make adjustments.

In the workshop and with Sergio’s demonstration figure on the right in the picture below, he painted section by section, but I suspect this was for teaching reasons, and that it is not his usual approach. It’s easier to talk about the specifics of how to paint non-metallic leather, worn leather, and so on if you paint each section individually.

Anushka wip3 comps front full

My practice figure is in the centre. Class demo figures painted by Sergio Calvo Rubio are to the left and right.

Anushka wip3 comps back full

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Third Study Session

After finishing up the non-metallic metal and the hat (still trying to adhere to Sergio’s principles), I decided to revisit the skirt yet again. I painted a number of glazes on the skirt. Some of the glazes were lighter colours, intended to bump up the overall contrast in the highlight areas. I also added some orange tones to saturate the colour a little more, and I used some of the same blues I used in the hair in to glaze in more shadows. The overall intent was to build up the value contrast a little more, and tone down the texture. I think it has a bit more of a buckskin hide look now, and the level of texturing is more appropriate to the character.

Anushka wip4 back full

Anushka wip4 comps front full

My practice figure is in the centre. Class demo figures painted by Sergio Calvo Rubio are to the left and right.

Anushka wip4 comps back full

Here’s a compilation photo of the three phases I went through trying to work out how to do the skirt.

Anushka comp cr

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The Finished Figure

So did I accomplish my goals and successfully study Sergio Calvo’s approach? Let’s take a look at the completed miniature.

Anushka front

I think I did focus attention in the centre of the figure and put a lot of light around the face. I painted a different sort of leather texture than Sergio had, but my practice was focused on how Sergio approaches painting light overall, not that specific leather texture. (That might be a good subject for another practice session, though!

I achieved more pop highlights than I usually do, but still probably not enough.  Also some of the pop is coming from the non-metallic filigree. I’m generally comfortable going up to white on NMM, so that might not be a true test. To be thorough, it would be good for me to paint some additional miniatures with different materials and review how I did with those. In my opinion Anushka is a reasonable success, but I still have work to do to internalize and consistently apply the approach. What do you think?

Anushka back

Here are some comparison pictures with the reference figures. Note that in some ways this comparison isn’t fair to either of us. My figure is completed and has been worked on for several hours, while Sergio’s demo figures are quick demonstration pieces.

Anushka done comps front light edit

My practice figure is in the centre. Class demo figures painted by Sergio Calvo Rubio are to the left and right.

Anushka done comps back light edit

So that’s where I was after a couple of study pieces. Did I go on to incorporate principles of what I learned into my working process? Did anything stick? I’ve been thinking about that as I finish this article, and I think I’ll be working on a followup…

Figures Appearing in this Post

Tara the Silent is currently available in metal. She will be released in Bones Black plastic in the near future.
Tsukigoro is a 75mm scale (or 100mm?) figure from the Hirelings of Asura Kickstarter. I am unsure if the Hireling figures are currently for sale.
The goblin is Bocanegra the Little Tyrant.
Anushka Female Fighter is available in metal.
Mavaro, Iconic Occultist is available in Bones plastic or metal.
Beach Babe Libby is available in metal.
Eriu Champion with Greatsword is available in metal.

Aaron Lovejoy Airbrush Classes in October

Just a quick note to let people know that Aaron Lovejoy will be running an online airbrush class in October 2021. You can sign up for the complete set of four classes, or buy just the ones that most interesting you individually. The classes include live video instruction, pre-recorded video instruction, and PDF handouts. One of the coolest parts of the classes is that there are homework assignments to help you practice with and cement the information. Students can post pictures of their progress on Discord, which Aaron reviews daily. The live classes run on Saturdays from October 9th to 30th, but the live sessions are recorded if you aren’t able to attend in person.

I had the opportunity to take this class in 2020, and I found it very helpful in making me more comfortable and familiar with airbrushing. Aaron also opened my eyes to the array of applications you can use an airbrush for! The following is the review I wrote after taking the full class series that outlines the structure of the classes, and includes my positive and negative opinions. I also have a review of the Airbrushing 101 class that I wrote prior to the overall review.

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I previously reviewed Aaron Lovejoy’s Airbrushing 101 class. At the time I figured that was enough of an overview of Aaron’s attitude and approach to be helpful to other people deciding whether to take his classes. I found the experience of the Airbrushing 102 class revelatory enough that I started working on a review about that. But, I’m me, so between one thing and another I didn’t get that finished in a timely matter. On the upside, now I can review the class series as a whole.

IMG 1474Airbrush 101 took us this far through painting a dragon! The airbrush 104 refresher video demonstrated ways to use an airbrush on other areas of the dragon I haven’t had a chance to practice yet. 

First, a little background on where I’m coming from as a reviewer. I’ve taken dozens of miniature painting classes at conventions. I’ve also taken a few weekend workshops. I have a lot of miniature painting video instruction, too, from the very first DVDs that came out years ago, to the videos released by the Patreons I support last week. (Though I will confess that I have not watched as much of that material as I should have yet!) For the past few years I’ve been studying traditional art, so I’ve also taken part in a lot of in person and online instruction on drawing and painting. I’ve studied everything from free YouTube videos, to $5 mini workshops, to $35 DVDs, to a $400 week long oil painting workshop. And I also teach miniature painting myself, both through this blog, and at convention classes. I have as active an interest in studying the methods of teaching and guiding as I do in the subject of the class.

Lastly I should note that I am friends with Aaron Lovejoy and Liz Hunt. This review is not given in exchange for consideration, and I feel no compunction to give a positive review. I am friends with a lot of people in our industry and feel free to choose the option of saying nothing at all if I don’t feel comfortable saying something negative about friends. 

The online instruction structure that Aaron Lovejoy and Liz Hunt have developed might be one of the few good things to come out of pandemic life. They clearly put a lot of thought and effort into the program before it started. Once it began, they refined and improved their approach based on feedback from their students. 

DotsAaron has developed a system of exercises to build levels of precision and finesse of airbrushing that I had not previously thought possible. (He demonstrates his skills in this video.) I can attest that the exercises help. My initial attempts on the left were poor. With practice I improved to be able to do the example on the right. I still have lots of practice to be able to do anything like what Aaron can do!

The following is an overview of the general structure for the classes, and I would anticipate that the structure for the non-metallic metal series will be similar. I took the entire series of four classes, but it is possible to take only an individual class or two.

Signup
After enrolment we received a document listing the topics that would be taught in each class, and the supplies that Aaron would use in each. Aaron outlined the figure prep for each class in a video, and discussed figure alternatives that would work for each class. (He was also responsive to questions about alternative supplies throughout the classes.)

Pre-Class
Prior to each class we received a class notes document. This allowed us to read and be familiar with it before the class itself. We also got reminder links to the supplies list and prep video. 

Class
Live classes took place on Zoom. Aaron had everything prepped and ready to go on his end, no time was wasted. (Something I have regularly found to be an issue in classes I’ve taken in the past.) Liz monitored the chat and Q&A channels and communicated questions and issues anyone was having to Aaron. I suspect that as a teacher that this was very helpful on his end as well as ours. He could focus more on instruction instead of having to multitask looking at a lot of screens.

The class was set up with the intention that students paint along after each demo stage, and then post photos of their results on a Discord channel for Aaron to look at and give advice. It did take some speediness to keep up with that. There were a few times I decided to wait to follow later steps until after the class, and I know a few others did the same. The structure worked well to accommodate both student approaches.

Aaron and Liz were not at all stingy with their time. I think we went over time pretty much every session because Aaron was thorough in answering questions and reviewing submitted photos.

Post-Class Refresher
It can take a considerable amount of time to edit videos and upload them. To help students keep momentum, Aaron prepared a refresher video in advance, and it was made available to access immediately after the class. These videos demonstrated the painting steps a bit more thoroughly and leisurely, and in most cases included additional bonus information or additional examples of how to put the techniques from the class into practice in miniature painting.

Class Video Recording
Within a few days the recording of the actual class was available for access. This allowed the structure to work for those of us who had to miss a live session. I find you usually find something you missed when you watch material like more than once, particularly if you watch it after having put some practice in yourself, so it was also useful to those who were present for the live session. 

Homework Critique
This is one of the areas that improved during the class series. We had access to a Discord channel for each class where we could post pictures of our practice for review, and ask questions. Initially Aaron responded to everything with text messages within the Discord channel, but he quickly evolved that to daily video critiques for a week following each class. He displayed the photos on screen while pointing out issues and successes with the practice attempts. We were all able to easily see and benefit from each other’s critiques as well as our own. Liz and Aaron continued to answer questions in the Discord channel as well.

Gnoll zeniAirbrush 102 also focused on good zenithal priming. My feedback on the my first attempt (left) was less about airbrush use and more where to place shadow and light more effectively, as in the adjusted version on the right.

Review: Positives

As a student, I was very pleased with this approach. In many ways I think it is superior to a lot of in person instruction. The fact that you continue to have contact with both the instructor and other students for a week after the session is a significant advantage. It gives you time to practice and get feedback, and to benefit from the shared struggles and successes of others. This is very different from a convention class where you are usually unlikely to have much time to practice during the convention, and often can’t easily find the instructor later for feedback anyway. (ReaperCon is a little different in that regard, but you still have a lot of other fun activities competing for your attention there.)

This scheduled class approach works in my experience. The nice thing about a permanent on demand video through DVD or Patreon or whatever is that it is there whenever you want to access it. The bad thing about recorded video is that ‘whenever you want’ often becomes ‘I’ll watch that later’, which often ends up meaning never. Or even if you do watch now it’s easy to put off trying to practice what you learn. A scheduled event prompts you figure out how to fit it into your schedule and do it now. That’s not going to work for everyone every time, but if you find you aren’t self-directing your study of recorded materials as well as you’d like, you might want to give something like this a try. Having a recording of the live session available within a day or three meant those who couldn’t attend live could still take advantage of the information, but also still had that push to practice and study now to be able to get feedback. There was an energy and cohesion among the participants that I haven’t often seen in discussion fora for permanent on demand information.

Zenithal comboMore zenithal priming practice.

Aaron and Liz clearly put a lot of effort into this series of classes. Information was prepared in advance and the presentation was polished. (But still in Aaron’s affable and goofy style.) Both were attentive to student questions and concerns, and just generally accessible and friendly. Several of the daily critique sessions included additional review of class material or extra information in response to student concerns/conversation, and I’m sure these extras required additional time and effort on Aaron’s part that he may not originally have planned for.

One thing I particularly appreciated about Aaron’s instruction is that he included a lot of information about why and when he does what he does.  His feedback often emphasized lighting and focus on figures through use of value and saturation. The nuts and bolts of how to use an airbrush and perform the specific techniques he does with it is invaluable information, but it’s only half of the puzzle of getting a great looking paint job. I really appreciated getting insight into his choice and placement of colours.

As an instructor, I have been considering methods for online instruction for some time now as I prepared to start my Patreon. This experience has given me a lot of food for thought. 

Ab blending fullAirbrush 103 focused on how to use an airbrush to blend and glaze figures. I went a bit overboard by the point of the final picture on the right and would need to bring back some of the midtones and highlights. Aaron repeatedly emphasized that this, like many other miniature painting techniques, is a back and forth process.

Review: Negatives

One of the big draws of attending in person classes and workshops is the opportunity to get feedback. Even the best camera equipment and photo setup can’t capture every aspect of seeing a three dimensional object in person with our own eyes. And most of us aren’t working with the best equipment or knowledge! There were times with the photos in the homework group that Aaron couldn’t be sure whether the issue was more with the photograph or the miniature(s). He took the approach of acknowledging that and proceeding with the advice he’d give if it were the figure.

It may also be worth noting that digital camera technology has improved in leaps and bounds. Most of us have better cameras in our phones than those people paid hundreds of dollars for 10 or 15 years ago. Until the point of talking about subtle nuances of colour changes and so on, you can get some pretty good information from a photo. Photo critiques also allow the instructor time to reflect on the image, or use photo editing to illustrate points. 

IMG 1589Airbrush 104 demonstrated how to use the airbrush to glaze, refine, and enhance almost finished figures. This picture is not my attempt at doing any of those things. ;-> Between real life crises and work demands, I haven’t had the time to practice anything from 104. I did use information from the three preceding classes to put a foundation on the skin of these goblins though.

Live classes also allow instructors to study the painter’s materials and process as well as their results. When I first started teaching classes I would describe and do a quick demo of the consistency of paint needed for the techniques used in the class. There would always be a few people who were quite off when mixing their own paint to practice in class. Over time I came up with different ways to explain and demonstrate consistency, and I try to use as many of these as possible to be clear in classes. Fewer people have problems now, but it is still the case that my feedback is often based on an assessment of their paint dilution or the type of brush they have. Often you can see the issues by studying their work, but it can help to see the tools and tool preparation, as well. However, if I’m being honest, it is rare for me to study how someone is holding the brush and manipulating it and comment on that specific a level, and I don’t recall a lot of that happening in classes I’ve taken with others. There’s a lot going on in a 90 minute class and it’s hard to see since we’re working at such small scale. So while in theory this might be one of the things you miss out on with an online experience, in practice I’m not sure it’s as big a detriment as it seems.

The inability to review equipment and its use may have been more of an issue with the airbrush class than it would be with a standard brush painting class. Airbrushes aren’t super complex, but they are devices and there’s a little more to them than just use the hairy end like on a regular brush. There were probably issues that could have been resolved more quickly or easily if Aaron could have looked at someone’s airbrush or compressor in person.

VexWait, which end do I use?

There was something I would have found very helpful to see as part of the class. Aaron talked a lot about how he uses the skills and techniques from the four classes, but I would have found it very helpful to see his process of painting with a combination of brush and airbrush from start to finish to get the best idea of how the puzzle pieces all fit together. Switching back and forth seems like it must be a bit clunky, but Aaron paints a lot faster than I can, so clearly he makes it work!

One thing that is an issue is live video quality. The main venue for paid live classes is Zoom, and Zoom has somewhat poor video quality. (And occasional brief audio stutters and the like, but this is common in any live video format.) I have experienced that not just in Aaron’s classes, but also with video workshops for traditional media. There the issue is compounded by the fact that most traditional artists do not have the video setup and expertise that Aaron has developed in his years making Patreon videos. Luckily for students of the airbrush classes, the recorded video we had access to within a few days was of much higher quality. (Which is not always the case with my live traditional art workshops.) I don’t know if there’s another alternative to Zoom. I’d guess not or we wouldn’t all be using Zoom. I hope Zoom is aware that people are using this for more than video conference calls now and works to improve their video quality.

Figures in this Post

Reaper Vex Airbrush information
Narthrax the dragon is available in plastic.
The Gnoll Warrior is available in plastic or metal.
The Ogre Guard is available in plastic or metal.
Athak undead knight is available in plastic or metal.
Arran Rabin is available in plastic or metal.
The Bloodbite Goblins are available in metal, and will release in Bones plastic in the near future.

MSP Open and Medals FAQ

Patreon supporters receive a PDF copy with high res photos and better formatting!

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.

IMG 1868The 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. IMG 1162

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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.

Screen Shot 2021 09 19 at 3 42 08 PM

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).

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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.

Tristan combo open

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.

Minx wip combo

Minx closeup combo

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.

Ns wip 800

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.

Next step front full

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.

Purple combo

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!)

Spirit cannon face

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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.

Artist alleyI 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.

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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.

World expo 2017

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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.

Hr group fullI 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! ;->

Sophie2014 faceI 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.

Cersei by marikeThis 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.

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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.

BessieAt 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.)

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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.

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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.

The Drunken Mermaid and Basing Materials

Fun in the Sun was one of my entries into the ReaperCon 2021 MSP Open. It was awarded a Gold medal, and the unexpected honour of being selected as the Best Themed Entry for 2021’s theme of pirates. Below are some pictures of the finished piece. Nearer the bottom of the article is information on the shells and other items I used to decorate the base.

Members of my Patreon have access to a PDF with extensive work-in-progress photos and information on all of the paint colours I used in thanks for their generous support. Their patronage allows me to keep this blog free for everyone to read. It takes a lot of time and attention to write these articles, and it takes more time and effort than you might think to find or create photos that help illustrate the points made in the text. I enjoy writing this blog a lot, and I love sharing information with other people to help them in their hobby journey, but I also enjoy paying my bills. I would not be able to write these articles as thoroughly or as often if not for Patron support.

If you would like to receive PDF copies of the articles I write with high resolution photos and the occasional exclusive exclusive like this, please consider joining my Patreon. And now onto the photos!

Mermaid face

The figure I used in this piece is the Drunken Mermaid, which was sculpted by Christine Van Patten. Christine has some other fantastic sculpts available from Reaper, including the adorable Finn Greenwell leprechaun that has appeared on this blog before with tips for painting the colour green. Christine also has her own independent line of miniatures, Moonlight Minis.

Mermaid back

This figure was originally included in one of the ReaperCon 2021 swag boxes, but The Drunken Mermaid is now available for everyone to buy in the new Bones USA plastic. The Bones USA material is a little less immortal than Bones classic, though it still plenty sturdy. However, sculpts in the Bones USA material are also impressively crisp and detailed. (I’ll try to share more pictures and comparisons of Bones USA in the future.) The mermaid I painted was a metal master, since the production moulds had not yet been completed when Reaper sent it to me to share on my weekly Twitch stream, Beyond the Kit.

Mermaid front

The theme of ReaperCon for 2020 (online) and 2021 was pirates. The theme choice was inspired by the Savage Coast setting, a location in Reaper’s fantasy work of Adon. In 2020 Joseph Wolf wrote the Landlubber’s Guide to Brinewind, a city run by a consortium of pirates. The Drunken Mermaid is the name of a large tavern in that city. Copies of the Brinewind guide have sold out, but it is my hope that it will one day be reprinted or made available digitally, since it is chock full of fascinating characters and intriguing plot hooks that could be slotted into most fantasy campaign worlds.

For ReaperCon 2021, an additional sourcebook was released – The Landlubber’s Guide to the Savage Coast setting. The area is filled with nautical wonders and dangers, and the coast itself includes a myriad of ruins and mysteries, additional pirate towns, flora, fauna, and even more dangerous monsters. Copies of the Savage Coast guide are currently still available for sale on Reaper’s website.

(DIsclosure: I was the editor on both Landlubber Guides.)

Mermaid left

The sculpt of the Drunken Mermaid is based on an illustration Christine Van Patten did for the Brinewind guide. Christine actually created two different versions of the Drunken Mermaid art, and shirts with the artwork are available in black and white or colour designs on Reaper’s TeePublic site. (I bought  a blue shirt with the reclining mermaid colour art and I love it!)

Mermaid right

I chose to paint the figure as a living mermaid lounging on the sign and anchor standing outside the pub. It was a fun opportunity to use vivid tropical colours and explore lots of different textures like the corrosion on the iron anchor and the old wood of the sign. I referenced a lot of photos of different materials to study different materials and textures. I definitely recommend looking at reference photos before painting items! I have a second copy of this figure from my swag box that I am thinking of painting in a very different way…

Wip mermaid anchor top

One of the things I enjoyed most about painting this figure was the opportunity to finally use some basing materials that I had squirrelled away for years! I’ve written before about why you should allow yourself to use the good stuff in your collection. In the case of these and many other basing materials, it wasn’t so much that I was hoarding away supplies unwilling to use them, as it was not having previously had the opportunity to paint a figure they’d work with.

IMG 1602

The tiny seashells and rocks that I used were from craft type stores. Some of the seashells had already been painted, as you can see in the picture above, but I painted over them to make sure that all the basing materials looked in scale with the figure and matched the colour choices on the figure. (I’ve written more about why you need to paint everything on your bases.)

I recommend bringing a figure along with you when you shop for things like shells and dried flowers (which are can add a nice little touch to bases) at the craft store. Things that look very small when you’re browsing the aisles can look a lot larger when you get them home and put them next to a gaming scale miniature!

The white pumice is a product from Vallejo, though I think they’ve changed their basing paste lineup since I purchased this. You can also find similar products from acrylic paint companies like Golden and Liquitex. Golden’s pumice gels can be used for varying earth and sand textures, and Liquitex’s line includes a couple of sand texture options. The video of my Additives, Mediums, and Texture Pastes from Reaper Virtual Expo includes more information on these (and other) products.

The last item I used was in the bag on the left in the picture above – Star Sand. These are the shells remnants of tiny creatures that wash up onto the shore in Okinawa. I painted them to look like starfish on my base. You should be able to find some Star Sand for sale online with a Google search.

Wip mermaid anchor right

I was very surprised and honoured that this piece was selected for the Best Themed Entry at the ReaperCon MSP Open. The trophy I was awarded is super nifty. It is a super sized version of Barnabus Frost, one of the pirate lords of Brinewind. Reaper does not sell Barnabus in this size, but you can buy a gaming scale metal copy of this version of Barnabus, which was sculpted by Jason Wiebe There is also another metal version of Barnabus with different accessories wearing a hat, (which I have also painted) and a classic Bones Barnabus that is similar to the one standing on the trophy. Both of those latter figures were sculpted by Bobby Jackson

Mermaid awards

If you have some MSP Open medals you’d like to display on stands, the stand I used for this photo is an acrylic mini easel. If you use that search term on Amazon you should be able to find this or something similar. Since the medals come on ribbons, you could also hang them from hooks. I know it can seem a little self-aggrandizing, but I think it’s helpful to put your awards and trophies out on display. When you are feeling down on yourself or feel like you aren’t learning or improving in your hobby efforts, you can look at your honours to remind you of your achievements!

Medal stand