Common Feedback Issues Index

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

Have you ever wanted to pick the brain of a miniature painting contest judge? Or get feedback from an experienced painter and teacher on your painting? While we all love personalized feedback, it has been my experience both as a judge and as a painter that there are a number of common issues that people experience in painting miniatures. I have been working to put together information related to these common issues and their solutions to help painters better understand and visualize them. I am indexing those articles here.

Tristan front comp cr

Common Issues with Painted Miniature Figures

General Tips
Judges (and viewers) don’t just consider the painting on your piece. They also look at the base, general workmanship, consistency, and other factors.

Painting Related Tips
These are the painting issues that come up most often when I am giving people feedback on their miniatures. And most of these are things I am still aiming to get better at myself!

Suggestions for Contest Entries
An earlier version of the two articles above, but with a few additional points or alternate ways of explaining things.

It’s not the only issue. But it sure is an issue. Here you’ll find articles with before and after photos, and tips for how to create more contrast in your work.

Colour Theory and Terms
Many of my articles use colour terms like value and saturation, and you can learn more about those here. Understanding colour properties is a critical tool to improving your painting.

Display Painting versus Tabletop Painting
Most of the issues outlined in the articles above apply equally to display and tabletop figures. The big difference between them is the level of finish and the time and techniques it takes to achieve it.

Bugbear ba front cr

Examples and Comparison Studies

Blacksmith: Critique and Touchup
I gave this blacksmith figure I’d painted a very thorough critique, and then did painting touchups to address the critique points. In addition to before and after pictures, the article includes a link to a video version of the critique and painting.

Bugbear: Critique and Touchup
I took a bugbear figure I painted some years ago and gave it a thorough critique. Then I tweaked the paint job to address the feedback. The article includes links to videos of my paint touchups and additional discussion of common painting issues on miniatures.

Beach Libby: Visualizing Lining and Contrast
I compare two figures and digitally edit those figures to help you see the importance of lining and different kinds of contrast. (There’s more than one!)

Victorian Lady: Visualizing Strong Contrast
I took a figure I’d painted with subtle contrast and revised it using much stronger contrast.

Anwyn versus Tara
I compare the strengths and weakness of two figures I’ve painted that are similar sculpts with very different colour schemes, and different levels of painting ability.

The Critique of Promenade
I received detailed critique on my Promenade figure from two of the best eyes for feedback I know. What did they say, and how do I feel about it?

Smith ba front cr

Other Helpful Information

Miniature Contests at Conventions and Shows
This article outlines the general structure of contests, explains some of the terminology, and includes a list of in-person conventions and shows that include a miniature contest.

How to Transport Miniatures
Whether you’re traveling to play games or enter contests, you need to find the way that works best for you to get the figures safely to your destination.

How to Paint Sturdy Miniatures
A good transportation solution helps. Sealer can help. But making your paint jobs sturdy begins before you even apply one drop of paint to the figure.

Dionne before after cr

Bugbear: Before and After Touchup

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

Most of us actively seek out feedback on our miniatures to discover what people like about them and what we could do to improve our work. But often we are reluctant to repaint or do touchups on the figure that receives feedback, which makes it difficult to visualize what our figure might look like if we addressed the feedback issues. To help encourage people to give it a try, and to provide an apples to apples comparison, I did a critique and then touchup on this bugbear miniature to provide a visual example of feedback in action. I have previously done a similar exercise with a human blacksmith figure, and also a digital touchup comparison.

Bugbear ba front crLeft: The miniature I critiqued.
Right: The same figure revised to address some of the critique issues.

If you prefer video, you’re in luck! I did the critique and paint touchups on a couple of live streams of my Beyond the Kit show on the Reaper Twitch channel. During the streams I also used some other figures to show examples of common issues with contest entries, and I have additional blog entries on that topic as well. (Currently the video links are to Twitch, I will update these to YouTube links when they become available.) This article includes a summary of the critique and what I revised, as well as before and after pictures for you to compare.

As with the blacksmith, one of my goals with this exercise is to encourage people to be less afraid of doing touchups and revisions to completed figures. If you are nervous about trying it on an important figure you’ve received feedback on, you can still take the general ideas from that feedback and try to apply them to an older figure or something you painted quickly for a game to get more comfortable with the process. 

Bugbear ba back crLeft: The miniature I critiqued.
Right: The same figure revised to address some of the critique issues.

Grey divider edit

 The Critique

My first step was to critique the original miniature. I identified several common issues that experienced instructors or contest judges see when they assess a figure. Bear in mind that this is actually a more thorough review than you are likely to receive in social media comments or after a contest. I had plenty of time to assess the miniature carefully and consider how best the issues might be addressed, whereas a busy contest judge or instructor might have only a few moments to spend talking with you about your figure. This is one of the reasons I encourage you to work to improve your visual eye and critical thinking skills. You are the person in the best position and with the most time to help you improve.

Bugbear before crThe before version.

Below is a summary of the main issues I found with the bugbear. If you prefer, you can watch the video to see the figure in the round and watch me point at the specific areas in question for each topic.

Paint Job Damage
It’s hard to see in the photo, but there are a few chips on the leather straps and kilt. I can’t speak for all judges, but I tend to assume a one or two isolated areas of damage could have happened during the trip to the event, and I don’t penalize entrants for that. 

Areas that are unpainted or partially painted or extensive damage are a different issue than minor damage, however. That kind of issue reflects on the general workmanship of the figure, which is definitely a factor that contest judges consider! Although this bugbear was stored in my completed game figures case, when I started to look at it I saw several incomplete or outright unpainted areas: the strap on the shield, the rivets on the leg guard and shoulder strap, the claws/nails, and the facial details like eyes and teeth. This is an extreme example, but it’s actually pretty common to forget to finish (or even start) a part of a figure. I often take a couple of photographs before I’m completely done with something and make a checklist of issues to address while I’m doing the final touches on a figure. (I have an example of doing that in this article on Tara the Silent.)

Assembly and Presentation
Paint is not the only element that affects how viewers (and particularly contest judges) assess your figure. Assembly, basing, mould line removal, and other hobby skills are also important. On this bugbear, the straps and hand are a separate piece from the shield. They were not attached well at the factory. This breaks the illusion that the bugbear is really holding the shield. My Tips for Contest Entries Part 1 article has examples of other common hobby skill issues.

This miniature has a pretty solid foundation of colour and value choices. Those give it a good level of definition and make it readable to the viewer – it’s easy to tell at a glance and from a distance what the various areas of the figure are, and the general nature of the character. The shiny metallic areas stand out well from the more matte skin, cloth, and leather areas. The lighter skin stands out from the darker leather, fur, and cloth. The skin, cloth, and the bags are more saturated colours than the rest of the gear. This contrast between areas is a different kind of contrast than miniature painters usually talk about, but one which is just as important. You can read more about the importance of definition and the arm’s length view in Tips for Contest Entries Part 2

I scaled the photos down to simulate seeing the figure from a distance or in a thumbnail. Try to view these photos about 2” or 5cm tall. You can see that the stronger contrast between areas, the increased shadow/highlight contrast, and the added lining make the revised figure more ‘legible’ to the viewer at a smaller size/from a greater distance.

Bugbear before smBefore

Bugbear after smAfter

Face and Skin
The main issue with the face is that it lacks detail and interest. The eyes and teeth aren’t really painted as separate areas. If a figure has a visible face, that is a very important part of the miniature, and should be painted as the main focal point unless the story of your piece dictates otherwise. The skin overall is pretty good and has a decent level of contrast. But it could have more contrast, and more importantly, more depth and interest.

The shadow/highlight contrast level isn’t bad, but there are areas that would benefit from more – the fur of the figure, the fur trim on the weapon, and the kilt are the primary ones.

Colour Cohesion
While the overall colour choices work in terms of visual definition, it doesn’t quite gel together as a coherent colour scheme. It also lacks some  cohesion. In particular, the blue and green bags on the back are a little random. Those colours are not present elsewhere on the figure, and they don’t really fit the type of character. The base colours don’t conflict with the rest of the figure, but they also doesn’t mesh with it, either.

Detail and Visual Interest
Apart from the unfinished bits everything is painted to a decent standard, but there’s not much detail or visual interest. This kind of figure provides opportunities for weathering and wear and tear that could help with that.

Grey divider edit

Prepping the Figure

I did this part prior to the stream. I dusted the figure off with canned air and brushed it with a large brush. Then I mixed a solution of water with 91% isopropyl alcohol and brushed that over the figure. My goal was to remove any dust and also skin oils that might be on it from handling in game play. Acrylic paint adheres well to acrylic paint, but not as well to grease floating on top of acrylic paint. Painting over dusty miniatures could result in a rough bumpy looking surface.

Grey divider edit

The Touchups

I used to be very nervous to do touchups on a miniature, or even just to go back over an area I had thought was finished to increase the contrast or make other tweaks. Eventually I found that if I kept notes of the colours I used used and if I kept mixes to only two colours I wasn’t likely to have problems. Now I don’t even worry about that. If you stay even roughly in the same colour family, the key is to try to match value. Value is how dark or light a colour is. If you’re working on adding more highlights, aim to start  by beginning with a paint colour that is roughly the same value as your current highlights. Then lighten it up and add a bit more and paint on some more highlights to create additional contrast. Or the reverse with shadows – start close to the current shadow level and then add darker colours.

That is what I did on the figure below. I matched the actual colours pretty well on the skin and the teal part. I did not match the colour as well on the purple part, but because the colour I did use was in the same colour family and I started with similar values, the end result is a slightly different colour, but nothing looks ‘messed up’. (An article with larger pictures is available.)

Vic1 wip combo crFrom left to right: 
The starting point
Added contrast to the skin.
Added contrast to the dress.
Added contrast to the teal areas (cloak, underskirt, and ribbons).

It might be best to start experimenting with some older figures you wouldn’t be upset to mess up a little. It can take time to improve your eye for matching value, and improving your eye will help your overall painting, not just this kind of revision. Also keep in mind that acrylic paint doesn’t really dry immediately. If you make a mistake, just grab a damp brush and scrub it off. Then let it dry, adjust your paint mix, and try again. I cut the bristles short on an old worn out flat brush and it works particularly well as an ‘eraser’ on recently applied paint. And even if you don’t see the mistake right away or you have trouble scrubbing it off, remember that you can paint over mistakes with fresh paint.

To demonstrate my belief that you don’t need to use the exact same colours to do touchups, most of the paints I used were brand new colours that weren’t on the market when I first painted the bugbear. I used colours from the ReaperCon 2020 and 2021 swag boxes, and those that had just released as part of the Bones 5 Kickstarter fulfillment. I added a few additional colours because that collection of paints didn’t include any standard steel and gold metallics or a dark brown. I didn’t keep track of the colours as I was painting, but I think I mention them as I use them in the videos.

Bugbear after frontFront view of the revised version.

Below is an outline of my changes. 

I used a thin strip of plastic to apply glue between the straps and the shield and held the two parts together until the superglue set. It would be ideal to do this before starting to paint, but sometimes we don’t notice things or we have to make repairs to damaged painted figures. There was one strap that didn’t want to stay glued, and for the fix to really look seamless I would have needed to fill some gaps. Painting the straps dark and using dark shading on that section of the shield helps divert the eye from looking around there much. You can see a little spot of light colour in the above photo where the strap pulled away that I should have covered with darker paint to conceal.

The most important paint task was to get paint on the parts I missed the first time! I painted the shield straps, the rivets on the shoulder strap and leg guard, the eyes, the teeth and tongue, and the claws. The eyes are fairly small, so I went with a simple all black eye and a small light reflection dot of white.

Colour Cohesion
I wanted to tweak the colours a little to be more visually interesting and to work together a little more. I decided to paint over the blue bag on the back. I kept the green bag, and worked it into the colour scheme by introducing green into other areas of the figure. I wanted to focus on a colour scheme of red and green. I glazed some additional red into his skin with very transparent paint. I added more saturated red into the midtone of the red kilt, and also added more highlights with a bit more saturated orange and yellow. I thinned down a dark green colour (Goggler Green) and painted it into the shadow areas of the skin and the red kilt. I also added some to the shadow areas of the weapon and shield, though that was offscreen. I repainted the base with browns and greens used on the figure to suggest either an outdoor setting or a dirt and moss covered cave floor, as that was another way to add some additional green and tie things together.

Bugbear after backBack view of the revised version.

Lining and Definition
I had done some lining when I first painted this, but there were areas where I needed to make it stronger or clean it up. I lined around the belt and shoulder rivets, and the design on the belt buckle. I darkened the lining at the base of the claws where they meet the fingers. I increased the lining between the various elements on the weapon and I think it looks more defined now. I added definition with both darker and lighter paint on some of the wood areas on the shield.

Increased Contrast
I deepened shadows and increased highlights on many areas of the figure. The fur was one I paid particular attention to. The fur on his body didn’t have enough contrast to fully indicate the shapes of his muscles on the back view. Increasing the highlights on the fur around the face also helps draw the viewer’s eye there a bit more. The fur trim on the weapon was defined, but was kind of boring to look at. I gave it some additional highlights to make it appear a little shinier and more interesting to look at. I increased the shading on many of the metal areas, and touched up highlights there as necessary as well. The gold in particular needed more highlights. Although I was pretty happy with the original painting on the green bag, I added a bit more contrast to that as well.

Wear and Tear
In addition to slightly increasing the contrast on the straps, I also tried to make the leather look a little more worn, though I didn’t go crazy with that. I accented the rips sculpted into the kilt fabric by applying darker paint to the depressions, and highlighting around the edges of holes and rips. I used reddish brown and orange colours to apply rust all over the metal areas. He is sculpted as someone who takes great care of his equipment, but to really make that apparent to the viewer requires reinforcing the damaged areas with paint.

Bugbear after faceFace angle of the revised version.

Off Stream
Much of the changes were painted during the two streams, but I did do some of it off-stream. I wasn’t sure I could paint the small details on stream. My eyes aren’t what they used to be, and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to position the figure so I could see it and also keep it in frame so viewers could see it. I didn’t think about repainting the base until the end of the second stream. The initial layers of paint were still wet, so I worked on that more later. I also did a bit more work on the shading of the metallics and enhancing the texture of the shield off stream. I hadn’t really thought too much about the rust previously, but as I was working on finishing the changes to the metallics it seemed like a way to tie in some more orange and yellow, add some visual interest, and reflect the nature of the character.

It has been my experience that looking at painted figures in black and white can help people (including me) more easily see the effects of added contrast and lining, so I’ve converted the bugbear pictures to grayscale. While hue and saturation can add valuable contrast to our figures, they tend to look most visually effective if there is also some solid value contrast, both between the shadows and highlights, and between different areas of the figure. Taking a black and white picture of something you’re working on is a great way to get a different view of it. Looking at black and white pictures is also a great way to see if you really have as much contrast between your highlights and shadows as you think you do. Most cellphone cameras have a black and white mode or editing feature that allows you to convert photos to black and white so you can check your own figures while you’re painting.

If you’re having trouble spotting the specific differences that add up to the overall difference, another thing you can try is to compare individual parts. For example, look at the ear on the two figures below. The updated ear has a darker line of shadow under the upper ear ridge, and that helps you more clearly see the individual parts of the ear. If you compare the belt buckle, the darker lining in the crevices of the design and the additional highlights on the relief of the design help you better see the design, and make the belt buckle stand out more from the belt. Added highlights on the rivets on the belt also help those stand out more distinctly, even when viewed at smaller size. 

Both of these techniques are also useful if you’re doing some practice painting to try to match someone else’s work. For example, if you’re following a tutorial, pause after each major step and compare your work to what the demonstrator has painted at that stage. Convert pictures to black and white to better compare the values. Look at individual sections or areas within sections. Where have they made things darker/lighter, or put the texture, etc. 

Bugbear ba front cr bw

Bugbear ba back cr bw

Grey divider edit

Other Comparison Studies

If you would like to see another comparison with a different figure (and also a comparison between two similar figures), I wrote an article with a digital repaint of the figure below.

Blibby before after cr

I also did a similar project with a human blacksmith.

Smith ba front cr

Grey divider edit

Figures in this Post

The Bugbear is available in Bones plastic or metal.
The Blacksmith is available in Bones plastic or metal in a pack with two other townsfolk. The copy I’ve shown here is Bones.
The Victorian lady is available in a pack with a second Victorian lady in metal.
Beach Babe Libby is available in metal.

Tips for Contest Entries – Part 2

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

This article focuses specifically on common painting-related issues that we see with contest entries. I also recommend reading Part 1 of this article, which focuses on general tips and some common issues related to assembly and workmanship.  Even if you’re not interested in contests, many of the tips in both articles are relevant to anyone looking to improve their work.

Erin hartwellErin Hartwell’s entries at World Expo in Chicago.

I’ve been entering figures into online and offline contests and shows for years, and have also acted as a judge at several. These tips are based on the issues I see most commonly when I give entrants feedback on their work. These suggestions are primarily aimed at beginner and intermediate painters (Certificate, Bronze, and Silver level at the MSP Open), but to be honest, I still struggle with elements related to everything I talk about below to one degree or another (apart from lining), and I suspect I always will.

I also have an article that explains the different formats and terminology used in miniature contests, with links to upcoming events that include miniature contests and shows.

7. Arm’s Length AND Close Up

Most of us paint with the figure held close to our eyes, in bright light, and often with magnification. We are used to assessing our paint jobs from that perspective, and it is easy to forget that this is not how viewers first encounter our figures. People’s first view of your miniature will be at a distance – arm’s length on the game table or contest shelf, or thumbnail on a webstore or social media page. You need to attract the viewer’s attention at that arm’s length view to make them want to look closer so they can appreciate all your effort on detail, smooth blends, weathering, etc.

Most painters understand that the arm’s length view is very important for gaming miniatures, but many people discount its importance in display level painting. Many display painters put all of their emphasis on detail and precision for the close-up view, and fail to consider whether the paint choices come together to work well in the big picture view. This has certainly been an ongoing issue that I battle with in my own painting!

IMG 1081This photo from the Atlanta Model Figure Show is an example of the bustle and visual clutter that happens at a show style contest. At a show, painters have a decent amount of space and some input into how their figures are displayed. Painters have no control over the location of their miniature in a contest with display cases. Figures displayed on shelves in cases are crammed together and competing with their neighbours for viewer attention.

Depending on the character type, the story you want to tell, and the colours you want to use, painting a figure to look good at arm’s length and close up can be pretty challenging. That is precisely why it’s important to think about trying to do it if you’re working on painting a contest entry. Judges know it’s difficult to do. We are considering that challenge factor when we assess entries. In a top three style contest the judges have to make difficult choices. A figure that is competently painted to be appreciated at both arm’s length and close-up may win out over one that excels in only one viewing distance. In medal style judging a figure that excels at detail and blending may place at silver rather than gold level if it is especially weak at the distance view.

Making your miniature stand out at arm’s length is particularly important for in person contests. Miniature painters do not have all the tools available to us that other artists do. We can’t make the background plain or artfully blur it out. Usually there is a lot of visual clutter surrounding our piece that it has to compete with. We also can’t crop our figures down to the important part to force viewers to focus on that the way photographers can. (Though sculptors can, and this is kind of what busts are!) The only tools we have are the colours we apply to the miniature and the way we apply them.

Below are a couple of shelf shots I took of miniatures I’ve painted. Some used tabletop techniques and a small time investment, some are painted to a high quality level with a larger time investment, and some are somewhere in between. The ones that first grab your attention are not necessarily the ones I put the most effort and time into. You can read more about this and discover which figures are from which level of paint job in Constraints and Conudrums Part II

Shelf shot1

Shelf shot2

The above picture simulates some of the visual clutter and indifferent lighting that would be present on a convention contest shelf or game table. Compare it to the picture below with figures posed against a clean background with good lighting. Enticing viewer attention at arm’s length is especially important if the figure will be viewed in a cluttered environment and/or under suboptimal lighting.

So what makes for a good arm’s length figure? I’m going to outline some of the tools you can use in points below. I hope to expand on this and the other topics outlined in this overview in future articles. 

8. Definition and Clarity

One thing to aim for in the arm’s length view is to make colour and paint technique choices that help the viewer identify the key elements of the figure as quickly as possible – who/what is this, and what are they doing. At its most basic level think of this as breaking up the main areas of the figure so the viewer can tell if it’s a human(oid) or a monster, and whether areas are skin, hair, equipment, etc.

How can you use colour to do that? One way is to choose colours for adjacent areas of the miniature that are significantly different from one another in at least one characteristic. Choosing colours that differ in more than one characteristic draws the eye even more, and is an effective way to create focus areas.

Value: place a darker colour next to a lighter colour.

Hue: use a colour that contrasts in hue/temperature next to another, like blue next to orange.

Saturation: use a vivid colour adjacent to a neutral colour, like red next to grey. 

Texture: smooth areas next to textured, detailed, or freehanded areas; or metallic/glossy paint areas next to matte paint areas.

To put it another way, it is helpful to use contrast in adjacent areas. Miniature painters tend to focus on contrast within an area – darker shadows and lighter highlights. This kind of contrast can help viewers more easily ‘read’ your figure, and it’s definitely helpful to improving your miniature painting. However, for the best big picture view, you need to create contrast between sections of the figure. See the Anatomy of Colour for visual examples of different colour properties, and the Catalog of Contrast for visual examples of the different types of contrast you can use to define and clarify your figure to the viewer.

Hue tint toneThis chart from the Anatomy of Colour article demonstrates some of the ways that hue, saturation, and value interact with one another. 

Consider the following figures. Try to view them at the same size as a gaming scale miniature would look from 2-3 feet away. These are some of the example figures from a Kickstarter Learn to Paint kit that I wrote for Reaper Miniatures. They are all painted with the techniques of drybrushing and washing, have roughly the same level of shadow-highlight contrast, and minimal lining. Some of them grab your attention more than others. This is largely due to their levels of contrast between adjacent areas. Those that have bigger differences in value, saturation, and/or hue are the ones that stand out more.

Using more refined techniques of blending, and/or stronger highlight-shadow contrast, and/or lining, and/or increased detailing would add to the visual impact of the figures that don’t stand out as much, but this is a good example of how the basic colour choices for your figure can give you a more solid foundation to build detail and blending and other techniques on top of.

Ltpk combo

Below is the same image converted to black and white, so you can see how strong the effect of the values and hues can be. The orc with the staff and the woman with the dragon stand out well in both colour and grayscale because the colours of the different areas on those figures are significantly different in value. For example, light skin and hair next to dark bodice next to medium value skirt on the woman with the dragon. The archer on the bottom left is more attention grabbing in the colour photo due to the hue contrast between the reddish armour and blue cloak, even though the greyscale photo reveals that there isn’t a strong value difference between her armour and her cloak. The figure on the top row in yellow and grey also stands out better in colour. The value between the grey and yellow is exactly the same in greyscale, but the saturation difference between the bright yellow and neutral grey really stands out when it is viewed in colour.

Ltpk combo bw

You can see some additional examples and expanded discussion of this topic in the  Constraints of Miniature Painting Part I, and a comparison between two figures that are similar in sculpting style and colour scheme, but have differing levels of definition, in Understanding Critique.

9. Lining

The most common piece of feedback I end up giving to Certificate and Bronze medal figure painters after the MSP Open is to use lining on their miniatures. I know that other judges and instructors emphasize the same point, as well. Michael Proctor has said lining is the one thing you can do that has the most visual impact. Although all of these judges and skilled painters I know suggest lining enthusiastically, many of the people who hear that advice are very resistant to the suggestion. 

So what is lining, why are we suggesting you should do it, and why might you feel uncomfortable with that suggestion? The technique of lining involves painting a line of black or a dark colour where two different areas of the miniature meet or overlap. For example, a line where the edge of a sleeve and the skin of the arm meet, or a line between overlapping armour plates. Applying a wash does not substitute for lining. Wash paint is thinned down enough to be somewhat transparent. While it adds definition to sculpted texture and shadow areas, it does not create the same level of clean definition between areas that lining does.

Blibby lining examples crThe figure on the left has almost no lining. The centre figure has been digitally edited to add subtle lining, the figure on the right has digitally added strong lining. In the versions with lining, you can more clearly see which parts of the figure are swimsuit and which are skin even when the photos are scaled down in size as if seen from a distance.

Judges suggest lining for several reasons. The primary one is that it adds definition and clarity to the figure and helps the viewer ‘read’ it more quickly. It’s particularly helpful in situations where the two adjacent areas are similar in value and/or hue. For example, you want to paint a white beard flowing over a pale blue robe. From a distance, the two areas are likely to blur together. Painting a line between them helps visually separate them so the viewer can identify what is what. Lining also helps your paint job look cleaner. The edges where different paint colours meet often look wobbly and messy even if you’re a fairly neat painter. Lining cleans up the edges between areas.

People who resist the idea of lining often say it’s because they think it’s cartoony and they prefer a more realistic and natural style. Certainly a thick black line separating every area of a figure might inspire a cartoon feel, but that’s not the only way to use lining. You don’t have to use a uniform colour for all the lines. You can customize it to the area(s). So in the example with the white bard and pale blue robe, I would use a dark blue or dark grey to paint the line between them. If you customize lining colours to the various areas of your figure, you need to choose a lining colour that is dark in relation to the darkest area where it will be applied. If I had a white beard sitting on a navy shirt, then I would use black, since navy is a dark colour.

I would also argue that lining is more realistic than you think. Objects that overhang another object block the light and create the appearance of a dark line of shadow. Consider the following examples. You can see a dark line of shadow between the mug and the table. You can see lines under the man’s shirt collar flaps, beside the button placket, where the arms meet the body, and where the shirt touches the arms. Yes, those lines are a little more subtle than what you would paint on a miniature, but they are there. We have to exaggerate the lines we use a little just as we have to exaggerate everything else we do on our tiny figures.

Lines inrlxcfPhotos from Unsplash. Left by Mediamodifier, right by Gordon Cowie.

If I remove the shadow lines from the photo above, things don’t look as crisp and clear to read (especially if you scale down the size of the pictures like a miniature is scaled down), and they don’t look as real. This is not solely a result of my meagre skills at photo editing. The shadow lines happen in real life, and our visual processing system uses that information to interpret what we’re seeing.

IMG 1074Photos from Unsplash. Left by Mediamodifier, right by Gordon Cowie. Digitally edited for educational purposes.

Another reason people avoid lining is because it is difficult to do. It is definitely challenging to paint thin clean lining on a completed figure! However, that is not the only way to do lining. I like to paint my lining right after I paint a basecoat colour. For example, if I were painting the face, I would paint the initial skin colour and then the dark line where the face meets the hair. I can easily clean up mistakes if I got some liner paint on the nose by accident, or if I need to make a line a little thinner. Then I do my shading and highlighting (or washes and drybrushing). Once I’m finished there will probably be a few spots where I painted over the lining, but I find it’s easier (and less stressful) to clean up a little spot of lining here and there than paint the all of the lining on top of fully finished shading and highlighting. 

A tip for painting lining around small details like rivets or an armband is to first paint the dark colour over the entire area and then use the side of the tip of your brush to apply the intended colour to the top of the sculpted detail surface. 

Orc lining example crLeft: Figure with moderate level of contrast but no lining.
Center: Lining has been added digitally.
Right: Figure with painted lining and additional painted shadow contrast.
Try to view the above pictures at the same size a humanoid miniature would appear to you from 2-3 feet away. The difference between the left and centre photos may not be immediately apparently, but try comparing specific areas of the miniature. For example, compare the straps on the forearm and the fingers on the hands. The lining helps you see those details more clearly from further away/at smaller size.

Orc lining example 2 crThis is a slightly larger version of the photos, with the moderate contrast but no lining figure on the left, and the example where lining has been added digitally on the right. The lined version looks cleaner and it’s easier to see where different items start and end.

You can see another lining example in the Understanding Critique article. This article about how I painted a hydra has examples of the power of lining and more information about how I did it.

It is possible to paint figures without using lining, but it requires the ability and willingness to use very strong shadow contrast. Most painters will find it easier and quicker to implement the lining technique and work up to more highly contrasted painting styles.

10. Focal Point(s)

While the figure/scene exists as a whole, there are parts of it that convey more story and character, and there are parts that are less interesting or less important to look at. A lot of this is established in the sculpt (and/or the composition you choose for the diorama/scene), but the way we paint figures can emphasize, shift, or distract from what’s inherent in the sculpt. When story/character elements and paint elements come together in a way that draws the viewer’s eye, that is the ideal focal point. (It is possible to have one or more secondary focal points, as well.)

Ideally we want to make choices that help direct the viewer quickly identify the main focal point(s) and make it interesting and enjoyable to look at. Painters have several tools at their disposal to try to direct the viewer’s eye to certain places. Most of them involve our colour choices. Lighter and brighter colours draw our eyes. High contrast draws our eyes. (This can be between elements, not just shadow/highlight contrast.) A higher level of detail draws our eyes. 

For a simple example, consider the classic vampire trope – super pale skin, with blood red lips (and/or literal drip of blood), black hair, black clothes. The contrast of that pale skin surrounded by black immediately draws the eye to the face. The contrast of the vivid red of blood/lipstick against desaturated pale skin and black hair/cloth also attracts attention. The Marvel character Storm and the classic interpretation of Drow elves use the same principles with the colours and values in different locations – dark skin surrounded by white hair. 

Focus example2Left: Marvel Comics Storm by Julie Bell Right: Morticia Addams played by Angelica Houston in The Addams Family by Paramount.

Creating focus is often a lot more difficult than that. We’re already juggling choices of value, colour, texture, etc. to simulate real world items and create definition. If the idea of also having to think about creating focus points seems too daunting at this stage in your hobby journey, that’s understandable. I am still wrestling with how to do this well myself! Instead, try to think of it from the other direction – avoid choices that steal focus from the important areas and divert it to less important areas. Try to avoid using strong contrast, bright colours, or fancy freehand on areas that are distant from the face or main action. Remember that the materials you use in your basing can also cause problems. For example, if you paint a gritty marine in a khaki uniform and position her on a base covered with bright spring green static grass, people are going to spend too much time looking at the grass, and not enough time looking at your figure. You need to get a different colour of grass, or use washes and drybrushing to dull down your bright green grass.

In the example below, I have digitally edited Storm and Morticia to remove the bright red near their faces, and I’ve added bright colours elsewhere on the figure. Storm’s boots and Morticia’s belt may not be the first place you look at each image, but you’re going to notice those areas more and spend more time looking at them than you did when viewing the original versions above. The bright colours fight with the faces for your attention.

IMG 1079Left: Marvel Comics Storm by Julie Bell Right: Morticia Addams played by Angelica Houston in The Addams Family by Paramount. Digitally edited for educational purposes.

The Catalog of Contrast and the Anatomy of Colour outline the tools you can use to create focus and/or avoid stealing focus. If you’re painting something like an assassin and you’re wondering how to balance the competing demands of painting a character that thematically blends into the scenery while still standing out to the viewer, I discuss that issue in Constraint #8 in the Constraints and Conundrums article.

11. Don’t Be Too Subtle (GO BIG!)

Special effects like source lighting or textures, as well as just general contrast and lighting that you apply to your miniature, are often not nearly as obvious to the viewer as you the painter feel like they are. When you paint something you stare at your miniature for long periods under bright lighting, with it held close to your eyes. It’s easy to feel as if high contrast or textures or whatever effect looks garish or unrealistic while you’re painting it. 

You are particularly likely to feel like something is over-the-top when you’re trying something new. Maybe you’re trying to push your contrast. Maybe you’re testing out a new technique for doing blending, or trying some underpainting. Maybe you’re taking a stab at non-metallic metal or weathering. Whatever it is, as you sit there working on it your brain is screaming at you that what you are doing is too much and it looks ridiculous. The problem is that your brain doesn’t know what something new is supposed to look like yet. It just knows that what you’re doing doesn’t look like what you usually do. So it nags at you to make changes so it look like more what you usually do. That is not at all helpful if your aim is to  try to learn how to do something new that doesn’t look like what you usually do! The fact that a lot of more advanced techniques like non-metallic metal don’t really look ‘right’ until you’re pretty much done painting only adds to the problem.

Osl evolution back full cr
These are figures that I painted as examples for classes on source lighting. I painted the leftmost years ago. The centre one was painted in 2015. The one on the right was painted in 2020. Compare the differences in the level of shadow on the left side of the cloak and the left side of the hat. You can get there a lot faster than I did if you embrace the idea of pushing to extremes. (When comparing these remember that the point is not which variation of brown you like better or something like that. The goal of my paint choices is to make that globe that he’s holding look like it is emitting light, and I think it’s clear that the rightmost figure does that most convincingly.)

If I had to pick a theme of the feedback I give most often as a judge, it would probably be that something isn’t enough. There isn’t enough contrast. There isn’t enough lining. The source lighting is too subtle for the viewer to understand that it’s supposed to be source lighting. It isn’t clear on a first glance that this item is supposed to look translucent. The story of this scene or the nature of this character isn’t readily apparent to the viewer. (One exception to this is gore. It’s really easy to overdo blood and gore to the point where it obscures other important information on the figure.)

People take that information home, and they do try to nudge up their contrast a little, or push the source lighting or whatever. And most of them probably do improve, but just a little. They’re very likely to get similar scores and similar feedback on next year’s entries. They’re also likely to feel frustrated and demoralized.

I have two pieces of advice for this issue. One is to just see it through when you’re painting something new. Finish the whole section of NMM or texture or whatever. Better yet, finish the whole figure. You can’t really judge the success of adding more contrast until the figure is pretty much done. If your brain starts screaming at you to tone something down while you’re painting. STOP PAINTING. Do not paint over that section, or dull it down with a glaze. Put the figure down, and get a good night’s sleep, or at the very least work on something else. Come back to it with fresh eyes tomorrow and see if you still think it looks badly done or over-the-top. Remember to look at it in normal lighting and from arm’s length when you are making that assessment! I discussed one of the many occasions where I’ve had to resist the urge to alter something in a previous article, even though it was a technique I’m fairly practiced at painting! I have also made the late night bad decision of toning something down and waking up the next day to realize I’m going to have to redo a lot of work because what I have now is not enough.

Smith ba front crThis photo is a before and after example of what it might look like to go back to something you’ve painted and address the kinds of issues I’ve outlined here. You can read an article with a full critique of this figure and discussion of what I changed, and it also links to a video version where you can watch me give the critique and then touchup the paint live.

My other suggestion is to take a figure or three and try pushing it to the extreme rather than aiming for incremental improvements. Go big. Go RIDICULOUS! Paint OSL so bright your viewers will need to wear shades. Paint contrast so extreme that no one could possibly accuse you of too little. Exaggerate the story of your diorama so it’s immediately apparent even to the briefest of looks. Use bold strokes and colours for textures and effects. Chances are your end result will be nowhere near ridiculous, but it’s likely to be a lot closer to where you’re trying to go than where you’re getting with the incremental baby-step approach.

If you’re working on contest figures for an open style show like the ReaperCon MSP Open, the nice thing is that you don’t have to choose just one figure to enter. Bring a couple of figures painted in your usual manner, and bring one or two GO BIG figures. Find out which one is picked for judging. Show both styles to friends and instructors and see how others perceive them. See which looks more effective in the photographs taken of all the contest entries, or which gets more response when you post your own photographs on social media. 

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

12. Contrast

You knew it was going to be on this list! The good news? This entry is going to be really short! The bad news? It’s short because I’ve already written about contrast so much that I have a table of contents to my contrast articles. Maybe more good news? The articles include discussions of why it’s hard to push yourself to paint with more contrast, concrete strategies to use to do it, and more before and after examples of what more contrast looks like in practice.

Vic1 combo face crAn example of a figure painted with less and more contrast. The right might be too much contrast for your personal taste, but the left is definitely too little.

Patron Spotlight: Matt Davies

This blog is made possible thanks to the generous support of my patrons. The Patron Spotlight is an opportunity for me to share their work and philosophy with the world! 

Matt Davies runs a site called D&D With Dad that covers tabletop role-playing games. Content includes reviews, tutorials, and fun miniature-related things. D&D With Dad also has a YouTube channel. One of the videos features Matt and his son working on the skeleton from the Core Skills learn to paint kit, and having a lot of fun doing it!


Matt is a professional photographer, videographer, and instructor. He’s noticed that there is a lot of interest in the challenging art of photographing miniatures, and he’s actively building a live class on how to do that. 

Figures in this Post

There are a number of figures in the photos of this post, and it would take me some time to add links to all of them. If there is one you’re particularly interested in, let me know and I’ll figure out what it is and where to buy it (if available.)

Tips for Contest Entries – Part 1

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

In person conventions are back on the calendar, and with them many opportunities to enter painted figures in contests and shows. Online contest opportunities will continue for those unable to attend an event in person. I’ve been entering figures into online and offline contests and shows for years, and have also acted as a judge at several. I want to share some suggestions to help you show off your work to best advantage. Even if you’re not interested in contests, many of these tips are relevant to anyone looking to improve their work.

I also have an article that explains the different formats and terminology used in miniature contests. It includes links to upcoming events with miniature contests.

Beckley displayElizabeth Beckley’s contest entries at the Atlanta Model Figure Show.

Grey divider edit

1. Build a Solid Foundation

Judges assess entries not just for painting quality, but also overall craftsmanship. Minor issues can make or break your chances in a top three contest. Imagine that the judges are considering two figures for third place. The pieces are fairly equal in painting skill, effectiveness of colour scheme, etc. The judges have to look for small things done better or worse. If they spot noticeable mould lines, a gap in a join, or some other kind of workmanship issue, that makes the choice for them. If the situation were choosing between a piece that was slightly better painted but has construction problems versus one that is well constructed but slightly less inspired in paint, the latter might win.

The importance of this varies some with category as well as with each contest, but the point I want to make is that if you’re looking to be competitive in contests, you need to practice your hobby skills as well as your pure paint skills. In an open show like the MSP Open this aspect is a smaller part of what is considered in the Painter category, but basic or egregious issues could still affect your top medal placement potential. It is a larger part of what is considered in the Open category, and is important for placing in the top three in the manufacturer categories.

Areas to consider:

Mould Lines
We all hate ‘em. They’re a pain to deal with in every material. At a minimum you should remove pronounced mould lines or those that travel over prominent areas viewers will easily see. This would include on the face and areas of skin in general, and large smooth expanses like a cloak or robe. For the MSP Open, mould lines would not affect your ability to place Bronze, but start to be more of an issue for being awarded Silver or Gold.

MouldlinesMould lines on a plastic figure coated with a layer of paint (left) and bare metal figure (right).

Assembly Gaps
When you glue an arm or a head on a multipart figure, sometimes there is a gap at the join. So instead of the appearance of smooth flesh, you have a crevice at the shoulder or the elbow. These are best addressed prior to painting. Modelling paste works well for small gaps. You may need to use a two part putty like Greenstuff or Milliput to fill large gaps. Putties also add to the structural integrity of joins. You can use these same materials to fill gaps on pre-assembled figures. If you have a pre-assembled figure that has excess glue in the join areas, you can carefully chip it off with a hobby knife.

GapAn assembly gap on a plastic figure. Metal figures can be even more problematic since different pieces may experience different levels of mould compression in casting.

I recommend using pins when you glue parts together, particularly on metal miniatures, and particularly for gaming miniatures. This increases the strength of the join and reduces the chances that the join will break during transit or handling. This is less of an issue for lighter weight plastic or resin miniatures. 

It’s easiest and most efficient to complete all gap filling and assembly prior to beginning to paint, but sometimes that is not possible. When it is not, try to dry fit all the pieces to check that they go together as well as possible. Paint what you need to paint to be able to assemble. Be prepared to have to do a little gap filling and paint touchup after assembly.

Floating Feet
It’s fairly common to attach a figure to a base via a pin in one or both feet (or its cloak or whatever part is touching the ground.) It’s also fairly common for this attachment to not be 100% flush, even if it looked like a tight fit when you did your dry fit test. This is another gap that needs to be addressed. If the feet or clothes that are supposed to be touching the floor appear to be floating above the earth, it breaks the illusion of the scene, as well as being a craftsmanship issue. You can use the same gap fillers as with figure assembly. It is worth filling the gap and doing a little repainting even if this occurs when gluing a fully painted figure to a fully painted base in the end stages.

Floating feet crI learned to plant the figure on solid ground early on, so I don’t have a lot of examples at hand. The figure in the above photo is pinned via the opposite foot. This foot was glued down, but has broken free of the glue and is floating. A photo of the solid footing version is included in the Category Divisions section below so you can compare.

Grey divider edit

2. Paint the Base!

Most basing materials need to be painted. Even if the sand or gravel you used on your base is a suitable colour of dirt or rock for your scene, you should paint it. The reason we add washes/shadows and drybrushing/highlights to figures is because they don’t really look three dimensional under standard lighting. We are simulating the effect that in-scale lighting would have on the figure. We need to paint the basing material for the same reason – so it looks in scale with the figure. Painting both the figure and the base also helps join them together as being a part of the same world. It gives you the opportunity to use some of the same colours and unify your colour scheme. Like if you used a dark blue or brown on your figure’s cloak, you could use the same colour as a wash on your stones or earth. I often use lighter colours I used in painting the flesh or leather for the lightest highlights when drybrushing stone or dirt.

(I learned this tip soon after I started painting so I don’t have a convenient example, but will try to add one as time permits.)

Materials like static grass, undergrowth, and leaves may not need to be completely painted, but they often still benefit from a little paintwork. For example, applying a wash on the grass with a shadow colour from your figure can help unify the scene or dull down bright grass that might compete for attention with your figure’s gritty colour scheme. Drybrushing the tips of the grass/vegetation can also contribute to your scene. You can use a light greenish-yellow if you want the grass to look healthy, or a brown or tan if you want it to look like it’s dying. Adding some paint to your basing materials helps you tell more of a story as well as looking more realistic. I recommend doing some tests on adding paint to your materials prior to assembling your contest entries. I’ve had some grasses and vegetation that resisted the paint a little and caused spatters. With these I paint them off of the piece and then glue them on once the paint has dried.

At the MSP Open, unpainted basing materials are a very common issue that we see with first-time entries. It’s not a deal breaker for placement at Certificate or Bronze, but it does affect consideration for Silver and Gold.

3. Clean up Your Act

Quick and even slapdash may be the order of the day in getting a figure to the game table quickly, but entries with a high degree of finish tend to place better in contests. This is particularly important in top three style contests where the discovery of an unpainted area or unplanned paint spatter or streaks can make the decision for a judge who is torn between two figures for a placement.

During the construction phase, check for excess glue, basing gravel drifting onto the base rim, and similar types of things that might look a little sloppy, and tidy these up as best you can. After the painting phase, carefully check the figure for stray streaks of the wrong colour paint, bits of primer showing through, or a small item you completely forgot to paint. (It happens. A lot!) Taking a photo of your figure from a few different angles can be very helpful to spotting those things.

Paint streak

Grey divider edit

4. Consistency Counts

People often think that use of a ‘flashy’ technique is required to do well in a miniature painting contest – something like freehand, source lighting, texturing, weathering, non-metallic metal (NMM). Those techniques can be good ways to demonstrate brush skills, creativity, and an understanding of light. And since so many people think of those as difficult or advanced techniques, they can certainly attract votes in popular vote contests. 

In contests and shows judged by experienced painters, however, it isn’t always the case that you ‘need’ to use a technique like that. If you do try a flashy technique, the judges will assess how well you executed that technique/effect in addition to considering the overall painting skill you demonstrate on the piece. It’s also important to remember that the judges are looking at the figure as a whole. If you painted some jaw-dropping NMM on the metals but just a basecoat and a wash on the leather, both are factored into the judges’ assessment. Many competition painters have been in a situation of having spent hours and hours on the main parts of their piece only to run out of time and have to phone in a few areas, and it has made the difference in where they placed, or if they placed at all.

Another way to think of it is this – your figure isn’t being judged only on the single best part of it, or the single worst part of it. The judges are looking at it as a whole, both in terms of how well you convey the story and character of the figure(s), and kind of calculating an ‘average’ of your hobby and painting skills.

Brefore after new frontI entered the version on the left in a contest. I ran out of time before I could add wood grain texture to the staff. When I went back later to paint that in, I also realized that some areas did not have enough contrast, and I adjusted those, too. These were some sections of the non-metallic metal, and increasing the texture on the leather parts, which is most noticeable on the staff. The level of detail and finish on the staff does not match the rest of the figure. There is a close-up below. (Any differences in colour, as on the hair, is due to the photographs.)

Before after staff cu crIn this close up of the staff you can see that I added both texture and also more contrast. Compare the shadows in the crevices and under downward facing curves in the before and after versions. The after fits better with the levels of contrast and detail on the rest of the figure. In MSP terms, the original version of this figure would probably have been awarded Gold level, but it’s possible that one or more of the judges might have judged it Silver quality based on the weaker areas.

In the MSP Open (and other show style contests), people are often surprised at which figure from their display that we choose to judge. Usually they expect us to judge a piece where they used a difficult technique that they struggled over. Sometimes we chose another figure than expected because we feel it comes together as a whole better, or that it displays your overall skills to better advantage. The fact that something felt simpler to paint doesn’t necessarily make of lower quality than something that felt really challenging. It may have felt simpler because you were using skills that you have more mastery over.

Note that painting a figure to completion or consistently throughout doesn’t mean that you should paint every area with the same amount of contrast, the same number of layers, etc. If you read the Focus section in my Mistletoe Goblin post, it gives some examples of making decisions to emphasize some sections of the figure and deemphasize others to create areas of focus. The basic idea is that you need to paint the boots or the belt pouches so they look finished and like real items that are part of the scene, but you only need to paint them enough for that. Then focus the bulk of effort and bright colours/contrast/interesting effects and so on in the key areas of attention, like the face.

Bugbear before crNote that consistency is relevant to all levels of entries. The skin, pouches, and shield of this bugbear are painted with good contrast. Some other areas are painted decently but not quite to the same standard. The face isn’t all defined or interesting to look at, and there are a few other sections that are just flat basecoats. In MSP Open terms, the pouch and shield might be Silver level painting, but the face is Certificate level, and other areas are Bronze level. This would be awarded Bronze at best. (Award levels cited are for example purposes only.)

Grey divider edit

5. Read the Rules!

I know it sounds obvious. But ask just about anyone who’s entered contests for a while and they’ll have a story of how they or someone they know was disqualified from consideration for rules-related reasons. Misreading the rules can also result in entries being shifted into a different category than you expected. Read the rules before you begin working, and then read them again while you’re working. I’d go ahead and read them again just before the event, as well. It’s easy to misread something or confuse it with how the rules work in another contest.

Many contests tweak their rules from year to year, so even if you’ve entered that contest previously, it’s best to read this year’s rules to be certain you’re familiar with them. Unfortunately It is not uncommon for contests to take a while to upload the rules each year. All of these efforts are organized by volunteers and can take much more coordination with other entities than you might imagine, so delays are often unavoidable. If you need to make an early start on an entry, you may need to proceed as if the rules will be similar to the preceding year, and hope you can shift gears a little if something does change.

I’ve made rules-related goofs myself. Long ago Reaper ran a monthly contest on their forum. The rule at the time was that you could show multiple views of the figure, but each photo had to be uploaded individually; you should not combine them into one large picture. I combined, and I was disqualified. On another occasion, I entered a unit into the contest at Gen Con. I assumed the rules were the same as the previous year. When I arrived at the event I discovered the rules had been updated to require that units be submitted on a movement tray, and I found myself scrambling to buy something from the vender hall and paint it flat black with paper towels in order to be able to submit my entry.

Crew frontPaper towel and black paint to the rescue!

Areas to look out for particularly in the rules are:

There may be a size limit for entries based on the available display space. Sometimes people with larger entries are asked to contact contest management in advance to check if there is room or reserve space for their entry. Remember that the size applies to all three dimensions. Sometimes the limitation is in place because of the height or width of display case shelves.

Category Divisions
Many contests divide entries into different categories. These may be based on subject, size, number of figures, or other criteria. Make sure you understand the guidelines for a category you plan to enter as well as possible. One contest might consider a piece that depicts a victor with a subjugated victim at their feet a single figure and the victim is just scenery. Another contest might rule that the piece is composed of two figures so it can’t be entered in single figure. Be aware that most contests reserve the right to shift entries to more suitable categories or combine categories if   fewer people enter a category.

Minx front closeAre the skeletons on the base scenery or characters? One contest might allow this in single figure, another might require it to be entered in diorama.

People are sometimes confused about which category to enter in the MSP Open at ReaperCon. The following includes some guidelines to consider when choosing your category. If the team judging your piece feels it is likely that would receive a higher level award if your entry is shifted to another category, they will shift it. (If you already have entries in the other category, they will not shift it.) You can see the entries from previous years by category and how they placed by looking through the galleries in the Painting Contest dropdown menu on the ReaperCon site.

There is an index of MSP Open questions, including specifics on categories and expanded information on the judging process, thoughts from judges, etc. on the Reaper forums.

Painter: The majority of the consideration is paint based – colour choices, success of paint application techniques, success of paint related effects, etc. Basing, conversion, and sculpting are considered in terms of presentation, workmanship, and creativity. 70% of the consideration is paint alone. However, it is certainly the case that adding some scenic elements to your piece gives you additional opportunities to show us your paint skill and make your piece much more creative! Creative and well-done basing and scenic efforts can also improve your chances to be considered for the manufacturer awards and special prizes. 

Open: This category is for pieces that have been heavily converted and/or scratch sculpted. The gold plus standard here is a figure sculpted completely from scratch that is also expertly painted. A figure with a simple weapon or head swap on a basic base is not likely to place higher than bronze, regardless of how well painted. An elaborately constructed base is also unlikely to achieve high placement if the figure(s) on it are stock or only lightly converted. In Open, paint related elements are only 30% of the consideration. Workmanship, difficulty, and presentation are highly valued here.

Diorama: The focus here is on story. A simple piece with two figures telling a clear and evocative story may place higher than a complex scene with multiple figures if the interaction and story between them isn’t very clear. Basing, conversion, and overall workmanship are valued here, but if you can tell a great story with stock figures and scenic elements, that is great too!

Ordinance: Workmanship and painting skill are weighted fairly equally here. Weathering and evoking the appropriate environment for the vehicle are helpful to demonstrate these. Any figures that may be present are considered in the same way that as scenic items would be on a figure’s base in another category. The focus is on the painting, staging, and presentation of the vehicle itself.

Basing Guidelines
Some contests have rules related to basing. Contests by gaming miniature companies may require bases of a particular size and shape for certain figures. Units may need to be entered on a movement tray. Plinths may or may not be allowed. In all cases there may also be guidelines of whether or not additional basing like trays and plinths is or is not considered in judging. 

There was at least one year at Gen Con where several units were entered on paper plates. The contest required a movement tray so judges could safely transport the figures to and from the case for judging, but the tray itself was not considered in the judging. I heard about another contest where painters who customized their plinths who were disappointed to find that the plinth was not photographed or considered in the judging of the entry.

Grey divider edit

6. Don’t Forget Manufacturer and Special Awards!

Many convention contests and shows have a central structure for awards, but also have one or more supplemental awards. The supplemental awards are often sponsored by manufacturers, but some may be awarded for particular subjects or other factors. It’s always worth looking out for a manufacturer whose products you like. You’ll help them by showing off their figures, and you’ll have a chance at winning some prizes and recognition. I’ve been at many a competition where manufacturer contests were lightly entered, even when the manufacturers were offering generous prize support and/or cool trophies! That said, it is generally the case that higher value cash prizes attract more entries, particularly if it’s from a company that’s already established and many people may own some of their figures.

Msp prizes 2019 2The medals at the front are the general awards for the MSP Open in 2019. All of the other trophies and items are special awards and prizes!

At ReaperCon, the main MSP Open is a show that is open to figures from all manufacturers. Reaper also sponsors top three trophies in several categories, including special awards for entries of Mouslings and awards for giant sized monsters, and there are additional manufacturer awards as well. The Atlanta figure show includes awards for best flat, best Napoleonic era, and best fantasy, among several others. Gen Con’s contest usually includes several manufacturer awards. 

AwardsThe special awards table at the Atlanta Model Figure Show.

Grey divider edit

Figures in this Post

Savage Beauty by Black Sun Miniatures
Beorogg Black Rime Frost Giant Jarl is available in plastic or metal.
I don’t know the dwarf and chibi figures
Torlan the alligator man
Blacksmith is available in plastic or metal.
Frost Giant Queen
The Bugbear is available in plastic or metal.
The Heresy Inspectors
The sorceress is out of production.

Blacksmith: Before and After Touchup

Patreon supporters receive a PDF copy with high res photos!

Most of us love to get feedback on our miniatures. What did we do that worked well? What could we do to improve? When we get that feedback we are often reluctant to alter the original figure, for a variety of reasons. But without taking that step, many of us find it difficult to visualize what the figure would look like if it were tweaked to adopt some of the suggestions. I did a critique and repaint of a figure to provide a visual example.

Smith ba front crLeft: The before miniature that I critiqued.
Right: The miniature touched up to respond to some of the critique issues.

Conventions and shows are back on the calendar, and people are preparing miniatures to enter at ReaperCon and other events. I want to spend some time over the next few months addressing some common issues that come up in post-contest critiques to give people an opportunity to try to catch and address some of those before they enter their figures into a contest.

On the third episode of my Beyond the Kit Stream on Twitch, I talked about common issues in contest entries, gave critique on a miniature, and then did touchups to that miniature based on the issues mentioned in the critique. I used a blacksmith miniature I had painted for use in our home role-playing games. I’ve written this article as a summary of what I did in the video, and to share the before and after pictures for direct comparison.

My secondary goal with this project is to encourage you to try doing some touchups on your figures. You don’t have to begin experimenting with touchups on your entry or a special figure that you previously received feedback on. You can take the general ideas from that feedback and try them out on an older figure or something you painted quickly for game use to get more comfortable with the idea and the process. If you are working on an entry for a contest, I encourage you to work on it well in advance of the deadline. Once you think you’re finished, put it aside for a few weeks. Then come back and look at it with a critical eye. Is there as much contrast as you thought there was while painting? Do you need to tidy anything up? You will often be able to assess your figure more clearly if you take a break and return to it with fresh eyes.

The ReaperCon MSP Open (and most other contests that are organized under the show system) is open to painters (and sculptors/converters) of all levels and experience, as well as to figures from any manufacturer and in a variety of sizes and scales. Entries are judged against standard established for their category, and awarded Certificate, Bronze, Silver, or Gold accordingly. The number of awards at each level is not limited in any way, and entrants are competing only against the standard and their own previous placements, not against each other. Many of our entrants are newer to the hobby or people who prefer to paint for gaming, and those entrants are as interested in feedback as seasoned competitive painters. This figure was selected to demonstrate some of the issues that are often identified on Certificate and Bronze level entries. I often see these types of issues in online contest entries as well.

Smith ba back crLeft: The before miniature that I critiqued and then repainted.
Right: The miniature touched up to respond to some of the critique issues.

Grey divider edit

The Critique

First I gave the figure a critique. I went over the issues that would likely come up if an experienced painter or contest judge were to review this figure. One of the best parts of ReaperCon is that painters and judges are available to give people feedback on their work, although this is certainly not the only venue for feedback!

Note that this is a very thorough review. I had more time to assess and consider the figure than most people offering critique will have. And since it was my own figure, I didn’t mind tearing into it a little! I wanted to try to cover as many of the more common feedback notes as I could so people who have received that note on their work in the past can get a better understanding of what it means than they might have been able to in a busy convention setting or a short comment on an Facebook/Instagram photo.

Smith before combo crThe before version.

I’m going to run over the main feedback topics here. You may also find it helpful to watch the video to get a view of the figure in the round. In the video you can also see me pointing to the specific parts I’m discussing.

Paint Job Damage
It’s hard to see in the photo, but there are a few chips on the bracer. I can’t speak for all judges, but if I see one or two isolated chips or scratches on a figure entered at a convention, I tend to assume those could have happened in transportation to the event, and I don’t ding entrants at all for that.

Metallic Paint on Apron
If you look just above the pocket, you can see a light line of paint. It’s actually metallic paint, so it’s even more noticeable when you’re moving the figure around because it looks shiny. Judges do prefer to see a clean and finished paint job where the painter has gone back and corrected and tidied up issues like this.

Visual Impact/Colour Scheme
These issues are more obvious if you look at the figure from a distance or scale down the size of the photographs. And if you think about it, scaled down is how a lot of people will first encounter your miniature – on a shelf or table at a distance, or in a thumbnail on a webpage. You need to catch their eye there to make them want to look closer and see all the detail work you’ve done. This figure reads decently from the back due to the red-green colour contrast and better alteration of lighter – darker areas on the figure. In the front view the apron and skin kind of blend together. The face doesn’t stand out much. The viewer’s eye is more likely to go to the higher contrast, saturation, and texture detail of the anvil and/or stump area. This is partly related to shadow/highlight contrast, but is more affected by colour and value choices for the main areas of the figure.

Smith before combo crI scaled the figure down to simulate seeing it from a distance or as a thumbnail.

You can review the Catalog of Contrast for an overview of the different kinds of contrast we can use to make our figures easier to ‘read’ and draw attention where we want it.

Head Poorly Defined
The face and head area do not command the attention they should. People are drawn to look at faces, so painters need to make them clear and interesting to look at. 

Of course it doesn’t have enough contrast! It’s the eternal struggle for all of us.

Generic not Specific
The apron and anvil on the figure are probably the best painted areas in terms of paint application technique. At the same time, they are also kind of generic and dull. We think we know what a lot of things look like, such as leather. But our mental images for objects are often amalgamations of all the individual examples we’ve seen, which tends to make them generic or symbolic. When you think of an apple, you probably think of something like a Red Delicious apple – uniformly red, fairly symmetrical in shape, etc. If you look at some individual apples next time you’re at the grocery store, you’ll find very few of them actually look like that! They’re all kinds of weird shapes and a mix of colours. When I looked up images of working blacksmiths to see what their aprons and tools looked like, they had details of texture and wear that my painted blacksmith did not.

Blacksmith working on the anvil 2000Look at that cool texture on the apron! And the anvil has some light rust with brown and orange in it. Photo from

Reality versus Exaggeration
This is a thorny issue for many miniature painters. We want to paint something that looks realistic. One issue is that we often don’t check in on reality before we make painting decisions. Like with the blacksmith’s apron. Rough and damaged is how a working blacksmith’s apron looks in reality, not the nice smooth blends I originally painted. The second issue is that we tend to be restrained in our depictions of textures and effects to try to be more realistic. I’ll come back to this in future articles, but during the stream we talked about the idea of going big and exaggerating effects – make OSL so bright viewers will need shades, contrast so extreme no one could ever say you need more, wet t-shirt rather than slightly transparent cloth etc. Partly I suggest this because the small size of miniatures means we need to exaggerate for people to see and understand the effect at all, and this is more important than super strict realism. I also suggest going to the extreme because even when it feels like you’re doing that, you probably aren’t. But you’re more likely to get to where you need to be more quickly if you push for the extreme than if you hesitantly increment up your level of contrast.

The Base
Entries in the Painters category at the MSP Open at ReaperCon are judged primarily on painting. Basing work and general construction and prep are a smaller part of what is considered. So the base on this figure would be judged for how it is painted, but would not be penalized for being an integral base glued on top of a round base without any additional groundwork. If I were entering this in a different style of contest I would definitely want to flesh out the base, however.

Grey divider edit

Prepping the Figure

I did this part prior to the stream. I dusted the figure off with canned air and brushed it with a large brush. Then I mixed a solution of water with 91% isopropyl alcohol and brushed that over the figure. My goal was to remove any dust and also skin oils that might be on it from handling in game play. Acrylic paint adheres well to acrylic paint, but not as well to grease floating on top of acrylic paint. Painting over dusty miniatures could result in a rough bumpy looking surface.

Grey divider edit

The Touchups

One of the things I wanted to demonstrate in the stream is that doing touchups might be less scary than you think. I was hesitant to do them for a long time in my earlier days of painting, and I regret that. I encourage you to learn from my mistakes and give it a try! You don’t have to try it on a cherished contest miniature, you can start to experiment on an older or speed painted figure that you don’t have a strong emotional attachment to.

It is less important to match exact colours than you would think. When I did contrast touchups on the figure below, I did not correctly remember the colours I had used on the dress. While I prefer the purples I originally used to the pinks of the revised version, the slight shift in colour did not ruin the underlying paint blending and the contrast is definitely much more effective in the revised version.

Vic1 combo face cr

The key to making this work is to concentrate on value. Value is how light or dark something is. So if you get a skin tone that is kinda sorta similar to your original one and you paint a shadow mix into the shadow area and the value of those shadows is pretty close, it should work fine. Then you add in some darker shadows and increase the contrast from there. 

If you put some paint down and the value is way off (it’s much lighter or darker than the area where you placed it), just grab a damp brush and scrub it off. Then tweak your mix and try again. Doing this value matching will get easier the more you practice like this, and practicing it will help your overall painting considerably, it’s not just useful for doing touchups. 

Vic1 wip combo back cr

If you study the teal areas in the above photo, I think you can get an idea of the process. If you look at the side of her hood to the right side of her head, it’s the same before and after. That was essentially the midtone, and I didn’t touch that area with new paint. I added darker shadows under the fold of the hood, and lighter highlights on the peaks of the folds and the top of the hood.

To prove the courage of my convictions about not needing to match colour, I used brand new paint colours to touch up the blacksmith. These colours had not been released when I first painted the figure. These included colours from the swag boxes for the upcoming ReaperCon 2021 (currently on preorder) and colours that are releasing as part of the Bones 5 Kickstarter fulfillment. I was sent preview copies of these. I’ll list the exact colours I used to touch up the blacksmith and include scans of swatches at the end of this post.

I added more contrast to the blacksmith in a similar way as to that Victorian lady above. I took the shadows of areas down a step or three darker than they started, and applied highlights a step or three lighter than where those started. So when working on the highlights, I started with a value pretty similar to what was there and applied that. Then I mixed a lighter value and applied that on top in a smaller area, and then a lighter value again in a smaller area on top of that. The areas I applied contrast with standard layering include the skin, the pants, the leather (boots and bracer) and the hair. With the hair and beard I used the side of the brush held perpendicular to the texture to keep paint out of the recesses between the strands.

Note that I did not push the contrast on the blacksmith to the extreme of what I personally would paint at this point in my hobby journey. I was trying to simulate what someone at an earlier stage of their painting journey might do if attempting to push to what they would feel is extreme contrast.

I wanted to add both contrast and texture to the apron and anvil. I used brushes designed for stippling to do this. These have stiffer bristles. One was cut flat, the other was more of a teardrop shape. As with drybrushing I used more opaque paint to keep the stipple texture visible.

Based on my reference photos I added stronger texture to the apron and more subtle texture and colour variation to the anvil. Adding texture to the anvil at all goes back to the point about exaggeration versus realism that I discussed above. If you scaled my blacksmith reference photos down to the size of a miniature, you probably would not detect much texture or even colour variation on the anvil. We had a couple of people with smithing experience on the stream who pointed out that a good smith would take good enough care of their tools to not have much visible rust. Adding a bit more visible rust to the miniature anyway makes the miniature more specific, more interesting, and more readable, and it doesn’t stretch reality to a ridiculous point.

Kovář při práci Velikonoční trhy na Václavském náměstí 055 2000This photo of a blacksmith shows a different colour of apron with similar wear, and more of the subtle variation of colours on an anvil. Photo by Matěj “Dědek” Baťha from Wikipedia Creative Commons.

Colour Variation and Unity
It is helpful to add some colour variation to miniatures to add visual interest so people enjoy looking at them more. Among other things, this mimics the effect of reflected light and colour casts in light that happens in reality. Using the same couple of colours to mix the deepest shadows and lightest highlights is another way to trying to create some colour unity and give the impression that everything is being lit by the same light source.

For the blacksmith, I thinned down Carnival Purple and added it into the shadows of most of the items on the figure. Even a little bit in his hair! I applied it to the darker areas of the apron, and the shadow areas of the skin and pants. Purple often works well applied over the shadows of many colours, or even mixed into your shadow colours. Adding some hints of rust colours on the anvil is another example of adding colour variation. I applied a thin glaze of red to the blacksmith’s cheeks and the tip of his nose.

Definition: Lining and Edging
There was a bit of definition on this miniature, but I added more. Definition is an issue that comes up a lot in ReaperCon critiques, and just in general critique. Techniques like lining and edging help define the different surfaces that make up a miniature and allow the viewer to more easily see what is what on the figure. It helps it stand out and get noticed on the table/shelf/thumbnail. I applied lining in several areas of the figure, and did edging around the edges of the apron.

Adding lining is probably the number one tip I would give a newer painter to improve their work. People often feel like it is unrealistic. And again I would say look at reality. You will often see a shadow line where one part of the body or an item of clothing overhangs another. Lining is based on that principle. So it’s not just something from cartoons and comics, it’s something from real life. Edging involves applying a lighter colour to the edge of a surface, like the hem of a cloak. These areas often do catch the eye a little more or look lighter due to greater wear and tear. 

For a more extensive discussion of the importance of definition and lining and for another before and after example, see this article.

I was not able to work on them on stream (they’re very small and inset), but after the stream I did try to improve the eyes over what I had originally painted. I also tried to add some additional shadows and highlights on the metallic areas after the stream, but I don’t feel like these made a lot of difference. 

Grey divider edit

Arm’s Length View and Black and White Study

Compare the scaled down images of the before and after pictures. You can see more information in the small view of the touched up figure than you could on the original. That is due to having increased the contrast and adding definition through lining and edging. You can’t really see all  the sculpted texture of the stump and hair, or the painted texture on the apron from a distance. Nor can you see all of the subtle colour variations. The same is true of freehand or other details we often add to figures. But you need the effect of contrast and definition to make a figure readable at a distance and draw the viewer in to take a closer look at all of the details and subtlety you’ve added.

Smith ba front cr small

Smith ba back cr small

If you are viewing this on a mobile device, try to scale the above pictures down to the size of a miniature viewed at arm’s length to better compare the before and after. Areas where you can most strongly see the effect of contrast are the muscles of the back, the hair and beard, and the folds on the pants.

The last time I posted a before and after like this, some people commented that they couldn’t see much difference between the before and after. It can take some time and effort to develop our critical/artistic eye, just like it does to develop our brush handling dexterity. It may help to view the image converted to black and white so you can concentrate solely on the contrast and definition differences. Another trick you can try is comparing one small area at a time. Compare just the before left boot to the after right boot, and so on. Think of it like one of those spot the difference picture games.   You can also consider this an argument for why almost all critique includes the comment to increase contrast. The viewer always sees less of it than the painter does!

Smith ba front cr bw

Smith ba back cr bw

If you would like to see another comparison with a different figure (and also a comparison between two similar figures), I wrote an article with a digital repaint of the figure below.

Blibby before after cr

Grey divider edit

The Colours

On episode two of Beyond the Kit I did a lot of colour swatching. Depending on the surface you use and the way you apply your swatches, swatching out colour can help you see some important and helpful information about a paint, including opacity, mass tone (the colour at full strength once dried), and undertone (what the colour looks like thinned down or with white added).

I used cheap watercolour paper to paint my example swatches. It’s possible to paint swatches on even printer paper, but thinner paper or paper that isn’t designed for wet media application is likely to curve and buckle a little, and very thin paper might be damaged by paint mixes with a lot of water. I’ve had decent results with index cards and drawing paper as well. I scanned the swatches as I think the colour reproduction of my scanner is pretty good. Though of course actual colours may vary slightly given that you’re seeing this on a different screen and so on!

One set of swatches below are colours included in the various pre-order swag boxes for ReaperCon 2021. There are an additional three colours that will be included in the onsite VIP swag bags. I was sent preview copies of many, though not all, of the ReaperCon preview colours. I’ll be adding the additional colours to my swatch sheets next week and will update these scans after that.

Swatch rm rc2021

The other set of paints that I swatched are the upcoming Kickstarter 5 paints. One pack of these are colours that are already part of the line, but were available at a discount via the Kickstarter. These are the Anne’s Favourites colours below. Anne Foerster recently shared some information about these colours and tips for using them on her Patreon

The other pack is a mix of colours that were previously available via special edition and brand new colours. Reaper adds a few new colours to the line in each Kickstarter. These will first be available to the Kickstarter backers, but eventually they will go into standard retail and be available for purchase to all.

I’m particularly excited about the Oxide Yellow, Oxide Red, and Oxide Brown. These are similar to earth colours like yellow ochre and burnt Sienna that are common in traditional painting and are very useful for mixing. I’ve been playing around with some of the other new colours as well and enjoying those. 

Swatch rm bones5

The specific paints I used to paint the touchups on the blacksmith, in no particular order:

9444 Tawny Flesh
9494 Gnome Flesh
9487 Yellow Mold
9333 Brown Oxide
29139 Grave Glome
29128 Goggler Green
29129 Drow Skin
9039 Pure White
9328 Black Indigo
29150 Rusted Anchor
9332 Oxide Red
9505 Chum Red
9331 Oxide Yellow
9507 Kraken Ink
9325 Carnival Purple
9452 Blade Steel
9673 Bright Silver

Grey divider edit

Figures in this Post

The Blacksmith is available in Bones plastic or metal in a pack with two other townsfolk. The copy I’ve shown here is Bones.
The Victorian lady is available in a pack with a second Victorian lady in metal.
Beach Babe Libby is available in metal.