MSP Open and Medals FAQ

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When the judges were giving feedback at the 2021 edition of the MSP Open at ReaperCon, I realized that a number of the questions being asked were specific to the structure of the contest and the judging of medals. I love the open show format of the MSP Open, but how it’s structured isn’t especially intuitive to grasp in some respects. There are also some nuances to the medal placements that we have not been able to make as clear as we might like. I want to try to answer some of the questions people have.

If you are interested in more information on the feedback about your miniature(s) you may have received, I have written articles going over the most common issues that we see when giving feedback. There are several, but one important one covers presentation and general issues, and another other discusses purely paint related concerns

If you’re not very familiar with the open show format and/or painting contests in general, I recommend that you read this overview of contest terminology article first. I also want to note that while some of the points I am discussing in this article may pertain to other open show events, many of my answers here are specific to the format of the MSP Open at ReaperCon.

IMG 1868The awards table just before the MSP Opens award ceremony began at ReaperCon 2021. Winners had to supply their own water and clipboards though. ;->

Q: Bonze X entry is notably better/worse than Bronze Y entry.

A: For this first answer, I’m assuming that you’re comparing figures within the same category, like two figures from Painters. I’ll address comparisons between categories in another FAQ below. First off, you’re not wrong! In the Bronze medal grouping in particular, there is a decent range of variation. People tend to think of the Bronze – Silver – Gold standards as being like steps in a staircase, or evenly spaced like measurements on a ruler. That is actually not the case. Bronze is a gentle slope that covers an array of experience levels, painting knowledge, and approaches. The level of standards required to place at the Silver level is much more stringent, and the standard to place at the Gold level is quite challenging. Note that there are also sub-levels within each medal category as outlined in the next FAQ.

The diagram below shows the rough proportion of the standards for each medal level. IMG 1162

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Q: I get the same medal award every time, I don’t feel like I’m improving.

A: You may be improving more than you realize. Each medal level actually has sub-levels. This is why we recommend that you look at the judges’ scores if you want more information about your placement. 

The judged figure for each entrant is assessed by a team of three judges who award it a numerical score – 1 for Certificate, 2 for Bronze, 3 for Silver, 4 for Gold. If all three judges assess a figure at 2, that is a solid placement at the Bronze level. But sometimes one judge awards a different medal level than the others. This can give you information about whether you’re trending upwards, especially if you keep track of it over multiple years of entering.

Here’s a chart to break that breaks down the sub-levels within each medal type.

Screen Shot 2021 09 19 at 3 42 08 PM

Another thing to consider is that the saying ‘practice makes perfect’ is a bit misleading. Continuing to spend years painting in the same way you always have is rarely enough to propel a painter at the Bronze level to the Silver or especially Gold level, regardless of how often you paint. Significant improvement generally requires focused study (in person classes, video tutorials, books, personal feedback, etc.) and then deliberate and extensive practice of the techniques and ideas you’ve studied. In particular, it is helpful to identify one or two of your weaker areas and focus on improving those for a time, and then switch to another one, and so on. It is pretty much impossible to successfully work on getting good at everything at once. It’s also exhausting. Another helpful tool for improving your painting is to improve your skills at assessing and critiquing the work of other people, both those you admire and those more similar to your own level. Doing so can help you identify how to better apply techniques and colours, and also helps you improve your ability to evaluate your own work. Painting and sculpting are half craft, and half developing a better eye and understanding of how best to apply that craft.

On the other hand, keep in mind that you aren’t obligated to take classes, or work to improve, or do anything other than what you most enjoy doing. Some people genuinely enjoy learning and constantly striving to improve their work, although even those who choose this path suffer periods of frustration and disappointment. Other people get more satisfaction out of painting in a more relaxing way after work/school, or creating fun, but not necessarily amazing, figures to populate their game tables or share as gifts for friends. Neither approach to the hobby is superior to the other, and I know very happy hobbyists in both camps. However, you do need to be aware of what you really enjoy doing in your hobby time. If you’re someone who prefers to paint/sculpt in a casual, more relaxed manner, but you are also expecting to steadily move up in the medal ranks, you are creating some frustration for yourself by not matching your actions to your goals (or vice versa).

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Q: The painting of a Bronze/Silver/Gold in Open or Diorama seems like a different level than a Bronze/Silver/Gold in Painters.

A: Again, good eye, this is absolutely true! All of the categories in the MSP Open are assessed using the same five criteria: Difficulty, Creativity, Workmanship, Painting Skill, and Presentation. But each of those criteria are weighted differently in in each of the categories. There is a numerical breakdown on the MSP Open rules site, and the judges also reference this breakdown when making their decisions. The ReaperCon website includes an archive of photos of every entry since 2012, so you can scan through entries in a category for the past few years to get examples of what was entered into which, and how that entry placed. (Look for the Painting Contest drop down menu at the top of the page. This may not work on mobile.)

Painters: Painting Skill is the primary criteria considered, and is weighted at 70% of the overall assessment of the piece. Painting skill is only 30% of the consideration in both Open and Diorama. A figure can be be awarded Silver or even Gold in those categories with a more modest level of paint job than the standard expected in Painters. (There is more information on the role of a figure’s base in Painters in another FAQ towards the bottom of this article.)

EXAMPLE: The stock figure has a wand in one hand. I replaced this with a familiar, which also required removing the original base of the familiar. This is a very minor conversion. I constructed a larger base which included mushrooms I sculpted and the addition of some rocks and brass etched ferns on the back. Those construction elements are also pretty minor. This piece is not in the spirit of the Open category, and would best be entered in Painters.

Tristan combo open

Diorama: Story and characterization are as important to this category as paint or sculpting. The stronger the story, the better. Creatively compressing the characters and action into a tight scene is better than aiming for something strictly realistic in size dimensions or overwhelming the viewer with a ton of characters and scenic elements. Think of it as making a 3D movie poster or book cover, or a major story panel in a comic book. You need the viewer to grasp your story/vignette after a few seconds of looking at the piece. Achieving the higher medal levels also requires strong workmanship and presentation skills. (Most open format shows do not include a Diorama category. It was added to the MSP Open to reflect the unique interests and focus of the audience at the MSP Open.)

EXAMPLE: For the piece below I had to swap in a hand from another figure (because I lost the original), and I sculpted some rubble. As you can see in the finished pictures below, I later added a second skeleton, and some ground work to mesh everything together. While this involved more sculpting, conversion, and construction work than in my Painters example, this is a fairly minimal amount of sculpting and construction compared to the standard expected in Open. Since it’s painted to a high standard I might receive a Bronze medal, but the piece is not really in the spirit of the category. However, this piece does tell a story, so it would be suitable to enter in Diorama. If I already had a more elaborate entry for Diorama, this would also be appropriate to enter in Painters.

Minx wip combo

Minx closeup combo

Open: Workmanship is worth 30% of the assessment, and Painting Skill is worth 30%. The Gold standard here is a competently painted entry of a figure that is either completely scratch sculpted/heavily converted on a simple base, and/or a significantly converted figure on a more complex base. Open is usually the best choice for non-miniature OOAK (one of a kind) entries. Over the years we have had some wonderfully creative entries including a pendant, a constructed/sculpted abstract sculpture, stuffed animals/puppets, a figure set into a pocket watch, and more. The category is intended to showcase sculpting and construction skills more than painting skills. (Although the first two criteria are equally weighted, much of the assessment for Difficulty, Creativity, and Presentation involves more sculpting/construction than painting.) A head/weapon swap or a simple sculpted addition of a few pouches or similar is not really in the spirit of the Open category, even if such a figure is on a somewhat elaborate base. If you would like your basing skills to be considered more highly, we recommend that you construct your base and paint your figure(s) as a story or vignette and enter your piece into the Diorama category.

NOTE: The judges are not familiar with every miniature that exists, nor even all of the Reaper line. It is very helpful to include a WIP picture of the piece after you’ve finished sculpting and construction but before you’ve primed or painted. Or at the very least to list the figure(s) you used and the changes you’ve made to them on your entry card. If your work is of such high quality that we can’t tell what you added/changed, we may not be able to detect all of the work you’ve done to give you credit for it!

EXAMPLE: For the piece below, I did a head swap for the groom, using the head of the figure on the top left and the body of the lower left. I also had to chisel away the hat and repair the suit. I sculpted a yarmulke onto the groom. For the bride, I removed the belt from the original sculpt and sculpted on a sash. I modified her empty hand to appear as if clutching a bouquet of flowers. Both figures had one hand removed and resculpted to better appear as if they were interacting together. I used stamps to create the texture patterns on the floor. The canopy was constructed from beads, skewers, plasticard/styrene and mesh cloth coated in white glue to form it into my desired shape.

This level of conversion and construction makes this piece appropriate to enter into the Open category. Neither the sculpting/construction nor the painting is top notch, so I wouldn’t expect a Gold, but it’s suitable for Open. Since the piece tells a story, it would also be well-suited for entry in Diorama.  I would likely choose to enter it in Open as this is the most extensive conversion/construction I have ever done.

The picture below that shows the original figure and the piece before painting is the kind of thing that is super helpful to the Open judges. (And it also helps viewers appreciate your work more too!) You can include multiple pictures that reveal your components and sculpting/modifications in more detail, or you can write out the changes and additions like I did in the previous paragraph, but something like this is what we need to be able to identify all the work you’ve done.

Ns wip 800

The mesh cloth did not paint up the way I expected, so I later went in and replaced it with tissue paper soaked in white glue instead. After painting I added flowers to the bride’s hair and gave her a bouquet, and the crushed glass under the groom’s foot, which are also elements of construction compatible with the spirit of the Open category.

Next step front full

Here’s another example. On this figure, I sculpted straps on the dress and shoes on her feet, and added an additional hair decoration. I sculpted the candle and wax drips, and constructed the table from wood. To finish the piece after painting I added a bouquet of flowers and a distressed paper flyer. This would be suitable to enter into Open, ideally with a before painting picture like the one on the left, since this is an older figure that many people might not be familiar with. This piece was designed as a vignette of a scene from The Colour Purple movie. It would also be possible to enter this into Diorama, but since the scene somewhat depends on the viewer recognizing the film scene, I might prefer to enter it into Open. If I did enter it in Diorama and I included the photos, the judges would have enough information to decide to move it to Open if they feel I would score better there.

Purple combo

Ordinance: Painting Skill, and the Workmanship involved in assembling complex kits and depicting the vehicle/weapon within an appropriate environment (including weathering and similar) are significant criteria in this category. Note that any figures or creatures included on the piece are essentially considered as scenic elements would be in another category. Even the most skillfully painted of these has a very minor contribution to the assessment of the piece as a whole.

EXAMPLE: The piece below includes a cannon, which makes it suitable for entry into the Ordinance category. My work on the skeleton would not have a lot of bearing on my placement level, the ordinance figure is the main portion assessed. While the way I painted it isn’t terrible (I used reference photos for the cannon itself), I would probably get dinged pretty hard on the Workmanship criteria since I assembled the cannon the wrong way around on the wagon. (I haven’t painted any true Ordinance entries to have a better example, sorry!)

Spirit cannon face

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Q: I couldn’t get feedback from my specific judges because they weren’t at their desk when I was looking for them or they had long lines of people. Or I couldn’t get feedback at all because I had to leave soon after the awards.

A: The judges do our best to give feedback to everyone we can, but as the attendance of the convention grows, and the number of entries into the contest grows, that can sometimes be a little more challenging. The judges also have classes to teach or other events they may be involved in, and they’re humans who get tired and need meals. Serving as a judge adds between 5-10 hours of additional duties at the convention.

But it’s important to note that consulting the people who judged your entry is not the only way to get feedback on your work! You also don’t have to wait until after the contest results have been announced to get feedback. Part of the role of all of the artists in Artist Alley is to give people feedback on their pieces. You can start requesting feedback from people as soon as the convention opens on Thursday morning. Don’t be worried that it will affect the judging of your entries if you get feedback from an artist who ends up on the team judging your piece. If someone has given you such extensive feedback that they feel they can’t assess your piece without bias, they will recuse themselves from judging it. We have alternate judges available to step in as necessary for just this kind of reason. Asking for feedback in advance is the best answer for those who plan to leave Saturday night or early Sunday morning, but it’s a great idea for everyone.

If you do wait until after the contest to request feedback, you don’t have to ask only your specific judges. If one of them has a long line, look around Artist Alley for someone else who isn’t busy right now. You can continue to try to connect with your chosen judge, but if you aren’t able to, you’ll at least have some feedback to work with. There tends to be a lot of commonality with the issues we see at the Certificate and Bronze level. If you place at those levels, any of the judges or the artists as a whole are likely to identify and discuss with you the same elements that your judges would.

Whoever or whenever you ask, it is helpful to consult at least two or three people if you can. Even if each identifies the same strengths and weaknesses in your piece, they may each have different different ideas of how best to address those or different ways of explaining the kinds of things you can do to improve in the future. Everyone explains things a little differently, and everyone understands things a little differently, so it’s helpful to get multiple viewpoints.

Artist alleyI took this picture on a Saturday morning when many artists were teaching classes, but there are still several artists available to answer questions and give feedback. This is just one of four rows of artists, and in 2021 when we had fewer than usual. 

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Q: I had one piece I really wanted feedback on so I entered only that one and showed the rest of my pieces as “Display Only”.

A: I think 2021 was the first year we had people do this, and it was a bit perplexing to the contest administration and judges. For me, the fact that you can enter several pieces in one category instead of feeling like you have to try to game the system and figure out which figure or painting style is likely to get you the best placement is one of the biggest appeals of the Open show system! Which piece is chosen for judging is often surprising to entrants, and something we get a lot of questions about. (The answers to which I’ll cover in a separate FAQ below.)

As I outlined above, you can ask for feedback from any of the instructors in Artist Alley at any time during the show. That includes asking your judges why they chose the piece they did, and asking for feedback on any of your pieces, not just a judged entry. You can get the feedback you want and still enter multiple figures to give yourself a better chance for the best possible medal placement.

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Q: Why did the judges pick this piece to assess? I don’t think it is my best work.

A: This is a very common question. And I get it! I have several times been surprised at the figure an Open show judge team picks to assess from my display. There are two aspects to consider here. One is how and why the judges make their choices, and the other is additional factors that affect how artists might feel about their entries. (Remember, if you want feedback on a piece that wasn’t judged, feel free to head to Artist Alley to get some!)

On the judges end, we are always working to make the choice in your favour. We pick the piece from your entries that we will score the highest. That choice isn’t always obvious, and it isn’t always immediately universal to all the members of a judging team. Discussions about which piece to choose are often more contentious than any other aspect of judging. When judges like different pieces, we discuss it, with each judge pointing out the merits of their favourite and issues that might make them a little less enthusiastic about another judge’s preference.

After a few minutes of spirited discussion, we stop and ask ourselves this question: would I give piece X a different score than piece Y. Most of the time the answer is no. Whatever level an artist paints/sculpts at tends to apply to most of the work they do, or at least the work that they choose to bring to enter into a contest. If we are in agreement that all of the pieces from an entrant are of equal merit for the judging criteria in that category, we try to choose one that showcases your work best to viewers, has a great title, or in some other way stands out a little. We try to pick the one we think you would have liked us to pick, but we don’t always get it right.

Occasionally one of the judges does feel that they would give a more positive score to piece X than piece Y. When that happens the other two judges agree to judge that figure too. On the rare occasion that multiple judges on a team have strong opinions about different pieces, we keep talking it out until we come to an agreement.

If that seems like we’re being cavalier or off-handed, I assure you that is not the case. Remember that we are judging not just your entries, but upwards of a thousand entries from hundreds of artists. We have a limited number of judges and deadlines to meet. We would rather spend less of our limited time deciding which of your figures to judge and more time actually looking at the piece we choose to judge in detail!

So that is why the judges do what they do. But it’s also worth thinking about why you may have feelings about their choice. Often people who feel disappointed expected a particular piece to be chosen because they were trying out more complex and challenging techniques on it – you’re trying to push your non-metallic metal or paint source lighting or something like that. We artists often tend to place less value on work we’ve done that didn’t feel difficult to make. If it felt easy, then we can’t have been using our very best effort making it, right? However, sometimes something feels easier to do because we’re using skills we’ve already mastered. It’s not necessarily that the task really is easy, it’s that we’re more practiced and comfortable performing that task. Whereas if we’re trying out new skills and techniques, the first few times we do them we’re beginners again. The skill may be considered ‘higher level’, but maybe our current mastery of it isn’t quite yet.

Occasionally you may also produce what I call a ‘happy marriage’ piece. This is one where your style, the techniques you used, the subject matter, and your colour choices all come together to make something that just really works, regardless of how easy or hard it felt to make it. If you post a piece online and it gets a lot more likes and shares than your usual work and you’re a bit puzzled by that, chances are it’s a happy marriage miniature, and it’s happened to all of us occasionally!

I think the other reason people are surprised or upset about which piece was judged is the difference in experience between being the maker of something and being the viewer of something. Viewers see only the piece before them. They may bring some emotions and preferences along with that, like maybe you used their favourite colour or the figure is a subject they really love. (Contest judges are trained put those kinds of feelings aside to the best of our ability and assess the pieces as neutrally as we can.)

As the maker of something, you can never really look at it through other people’s eyes. You’ve looked at your piece too long, too hard, and through all different stages to ever be able to view it with a purely neutral eye. In addition, your experiences and emotions are wrapped up into your assessment of it. Maybe you feel very excited about this piece because it’s the first thing you’ve finished after an art block. Maybe you feel protective of this figure because it was made as a gift for someone you deeply care about, or during a very emotional period of your life. Maybe you think the piece that was chosen didn’t deserve it for similar emotional reasons – it didn’t come out the way you wanted, or it was painted during a tough time in your life. The judges, and viewers in general, can’t know what you know or feel what you feel about the piece or your life circumstances. There often is emotion in our work, and viewers respond to that, but the complex tapestry of feelings and life experiences that goes into the making of a contest level piece (or anything you’ve spent a lot of time on) isn’t readily apparent to the outside viewer.

I imagine most people who’ve entered an open style contest or who post their work on social media have had this experience. I certainly have! I’ve painted pieces where I felt throughout the process that I was levelling up and addressing the most common critiques of my work, only to have those pieces receive the same old feedback. I’ve had pieces I thought were quite skillfully done that neither judges nor viewers much cared for. And there are other figures where I believe I failed to achieve basic principles that have gotten tons more likes and shares than pieces I’ve done that I like the most or feel have more artistic merit.

Below is a picture of my display at the World Expo open show in 2017. I originally only intended to bring the four pieces to the right, but a friend suggested I add another to have an odd number of figures in my display, and I picked the one on the left. The giantess is covered in freehand and has a much more elaborate base than any of the others. I had expected that one to be judged, partly because the viewers and judges of many open shows are accustomed to figures of a larger scale. The figure on the lower left is still the most popular of anything I’ve posted online. The figure on the bottom right won a previous contest that it was entered into. The judges chose to assess the one on the far left, which I had painted eight years previous and hadn’t even planned to bring originally. I did have some feelings about that for a bit. Had I really not improved at all in eight years? But I decided not to dwell on it. The judges chose what they did in my favour. Now that some years have gone by and I’ve continued to study and learn, I understand that there are areas where the older piece succeeds over the others.

World expo 2017

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Q: I was told the base of the figure didn’t matter in Painters, but the feedback from my judges included a lot of commentary about improving my bases, what gives?

A: Painting skill assessment is 70% of what is considered in the Painters category. Workmanship and Creativity are each worth 10%. Difficulty and Presentation are each worth 5%. The base of your figure can factor into the consideration in those four latter criteria, and even give you more scope to show off your painting skills. These are some likely scenarios:

Base Factors that can Negatively Affect Scoring

* The figure is visibly floating on a pin or has one leg not firmly glued down – lowers Workmanship and Presentation

* Basing materials like sand, gravel, or stones are unpainted – lowers Workmanship and Presentation, also reflects a little on Painting Skill since you could be using the way you paint these materials to demonstrate the ability to paint different kinds of textures

Base Factors that are Neutral to Scoring

* Figure is on a plain black base, clear flying stand, wood plinth or similar with no basing elements added

* Figure is on its integral base or a simple stone/wood/sand texture base that is competently painted

* There are some more complex basing elements and everything is competently painted, but maybe it’s not the most seamless or perfect base construction

Base Factors that can Positively Affect Scoring

* The base is well-constructed and competently painted

* The elements present on the base add additional opportunities for the painter to demonstrate skill painting different materials and textures, or to demonstrate different kinds of painting techniques or effects. This is particularly helpful if the figure itself is very limited in materials/textures, like an elemental or statue that is made up of only one or two kinds of material.

Neutral or even negative scoring on a base occasionally affects placement at Certificate or Bronze level. If your judges scored you 2 2 1 or 2 2 2, it is very unlikely that you would have earned a Silver Medal if your figure had had a different base. If your judges scored you 2 2 3 and your base had elements that I listed as negatively affecting scoring, it is possible that you might have been able to earn a Silver with a neutral or more elaborate base.

Hr group fullI entered these as a single entry in 2017. The figures are sculpted with those bases, I just painted them. I was awarded Gold. Many of the figures I’ve won Gold with have been on integral or simple bases.

I have won multiple Gold medals with figures that just had standard Reaper integral bases, or minimal scratch sculpted basing. I even won enough votes for Best in Show votes in 2014 to place second with a stock base. I’m well-known for simple or even kind of bad bases, but I do paint them up as well as I can! ;->

Sophie2014 faceI won second place Best in Show with this figure in 2014. It is also an example of a piece that other people gave me more credit for than I thought I merited (Largely this is because I just followed the colour scheme in Izzy’s design art and there wasn’t any particularly fancy painting other than the base being a lot of NMM. I think its popularity was due as much or more to Bobby Jackson’s sculpting and Izzy “Talin” Collier’s fine design work.)  The judges chose to assess another piece in my display, which is something that I had put a lot of care and thought into painting and that I really loved, but the voters chose this one

I can’t speak to all judges, but I am very unlikely award a Silver score to a base with unpainted basing elements, regardless of the quality of painting on the figure. I consider painting the stone/sand/wood/etc. on the base to be in scale with the rest of the figure to fall under the umbrella of the Painting Skill criteria. I would have no problem awarding a Silver score to a figure on a plain/clear/wood plinth or base. Your judges are mentioning basing factors to you because a competently constructed base and one which offers you additional painting opportunities can help push you into the Silver level, and is pretty much required to place at the Gold level.

Cersei by marikeThis Cersei figure from Darksword Miniatures was painted by Marike Reimer. It demonstrates how even a fairly simple base can expand your painting options. Marike sculpted the back of the skirt to flow over the stones, which allowed her to paint the transparency effect on the dress over an additional material. She also added regal pillows that contributed to the characterization of the figure and the composition of the piece as a whole.

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Q: Why do some people’s entry displays have photos and/or documents next to them?

A: Entrants are welcome to submit related material with an entry. Some share WIP pictures, some talk about their inspirations, and some may share historical or other facts related to their entry. Entrants are also welcome to jot some information like that down on their entry card. We particularly encourage entrants in the Open category to give us more information about what sculpting changes and additions they’ve made, with before/after pictures if possible. When entrants are very skilled we might miss the changes you’ve made and give you less credit than you deserve! It’s impossible for the judges to know every miniature and what it looks like stock out of the catalog, or even just to be that familiar with the Reaper ones. We try to do some research if we have something to go on to do it, but we just don’t have a lot of time to spend trying to remember the names of figures and looking for catalog pictures of them online.

BessieAt the Atlanta AMFS open show, I included this card with my entry, to give more information on the historical figure Bessie Coleman. (I forgot to take a picture of my display at the show, I took this photo later at home.)

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Q: What is ‘Display Only’?

A: When you set up a display for your entries, you can also include pieces designated Display Only. These figures are available for everyone to enjoy viewing, but they are not assessed by the judges. They may be figures you’ve entered previously or work you want to safely show off to people. It’s a way for everyone to put out their work to be appreciated similar to the way the instructors in Artist Alley do. If you have a commission service or a miniature-related social media show/page, it’s a way to display more of your work and include a business card with your contact information.

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Figures in this Post

Tristan the Loremistress is available in metal.
The Sorceress was a Kickstarter exclusive from Minx Miniatures and long out of production.
I believe the scenic base was produced by Reaper and is also out of production.
The RPG Geek is available as part of a pack of Townsfolk: Geeks in metal.
Tasker, Henchman is available in metal.
Tinley, Female Wizard is available in metal.
The African Queen is available in metal.
The Soul Cannon is available in metal.
The Frost Giant Queen is available in Bones plastic.
Bourbon Street Sophie is available in metal.
Treasure Rocky is available in Bones plastic.
This version of Tara the Silent was a special addition and is out of production.
Ar-Fienel was a limited edition figure and is out of production.
The High Rollers are available in Bones plastic.
Sheriff Sophie is available in metal.
Cersei Lannister is available in metal.
Tillie Fighter Pilot is available in metal.

The Drunken Mermaid and Basing Materials

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

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

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

Mermaid face

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

Mermaid back

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

Mermaid front

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

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

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

Mermaid left

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

Mermaid right

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

Wip mermaid anchor top

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

IMG 1602

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

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

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

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

Wip mermaid anchor right

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

Mermaid awards

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

Medal stand

Tips for Contest Entries – Part 2

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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

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

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

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.

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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

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

Miniature Contests at Conventions and Shows

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This article provides some general information about miniature painting (and sculpting) contests at conventions and shows. I occasionally write articles with tips for people entering contests, and rather than overstuff every contest-related article with general information and definitions, I’ve put it here for easy reference. I also have an article with some general information on why it’s worth attending a convention or showing up to a show.

Msp prizes 2019 2Prizes and awards at the MSP Open in 2019.

At the bottom of this article is a list of all of the conventions and shows with miniature contests that I’m aware of, with dates and links to further information. If you know of a contest that isn’t listed here, please let me know about it so I can include it!

First up is a glossary of common terms related to contests.

Podium or Top Three Contest
Many gaming convention contests and online contests are organized podium style, like the Olympics. Within each category, there are a set number of winners. First, second, and third is pretty common, but some contests award first through fifth place, and a small contest may only award first place. In these contests the entries are ranked by judges or popular vote, and the best three (or designated number) are awarded trophies/prizes. Some contests allow ties. There are usually limits to how many figures you can enter in each category and/or overall. There may also be additional prizes offered by specific manufacturers for the best first through third (more or less) figures painted from their company.

Depending on the size of the contest and the way it is organized, judging may be conducted by a single person or a team. Judges may be miniature painters, guest artists, or representatives of a sponsoring company.

Msp prizes 2019Left: Sophie trophies for the top three Reaper figures in each category at the MSP Open 2019.
Right: Large Monster trophies.

The Reaper MSP Open includes a podium contest element in the manufacturer awards. All entries that include Reaper figures are considered for top three placement in their categories. The winners earn bronze, silver, or gold Sophie trophies. Other manufacturers also sponsor awards at the MSP Open.

Another podium contest many miniature painters are unaware of are the IMPS shows. While awards are first through third place, IMPS shows have some elements in common with shows. Entries are displayed on tables rather than cases. They are judged by teams following established guidelines for standards. Although the focus of these shows is on models, they have categories and prizes for miniature figures, and attending one of their meetings or shows could be a great way to meet local miniature enthusiasts. I really enjoyed attending my local IMPS show, both as an entrant and a viewer. There are IMPS clubs and shows around the world. The USA site has a map and listing of clubs so you can find one near you.

Open Show Contest
The open format began in the military miniature figure community, but in recent years has been adopted by some convention and manufacturer contests. In this format, entrants can enter a number of figures into each category, and even arrange them together in an attractive display that might include risers and a cloth backdrop. Entrants can also include information about the piece with their entry. This might be a description of the inspiration or historical background, and/or work in progress pictures that document steps of sculpting, conversion, and/or painting.

World expo 2017 2The medals at the World Expo in 2017 filled several tables!

Figures are assessed in given criteria against a standard of achievement, and are awarded a placement based on the standard. If 40 people enter gold quality work, 40 golds are awarded. If no one enters gold quality work, no golds are awarded. There are often additional special awards that might be sponsored by the host organization or individual members. The Atlanta awards show includes special awards for best Western themed piece and best Monster, among several others.

In the military shows and those that adopt the same format, there are guidelines for the overall process, category judging, and training of judges –  the International Judging Criteria. The Reaper MSP Open is one of those shows. Open shows at gaming conventions or organized by miniature manufacturers may be conducted in a different fashion. Under the International Judging Criteria, entries are judged by a team to make judging as equitable as possible. Alternate judges are on hand to step in if a judge has a bias for or against an entrant, and judges do not assess their own pieces. The process is overseen by an overall director who is available to review discrepancies in judging and help resolve any technical issues or confusion.

IMG 5822Example of a display area at the Atlanta show in 2019.

Note that there can be a difference in the standard for each medal level between shows. The MSP Open at ReaperCon is a very encouraging show. The World Expo Open is a very stringent show. Many figures awarded gold at an encouraging show might instead earn silver at a tough show, with only the best of the best earning gold. But the idea of judging to a standard and maintaining consistency is the same among all of the shows who use the International Judging Criteria. 

Volunteers Make it Happen
Convention or show, all of these events depend on volunteers. Contest volunteers often work a full workday or more of hours each day of the convention. They provide fun content to attendees at the cost of limiting their own time available to attend events, take classes, shop, or even just socialize. They are not paid for this, at most receiving a free entry badge and hotel accommodation. Respect their efforts by being polite, making yourself aware of the contest rules and schedule, and following them. Events have been reduced in scale or disappeared completely for lack of volunteer interest because volunteers burn out.

Reapercon entering 2019The volunteers in any contest area work hard to help you enter and retrieve your entries, organize the judging, and answer a lot of questions.
Volunteers Alison Liu and Debby Lewis (seated) assist entrant David Cecil, while award sponsor Michelle Farnsworth looks on.

Most contests select experienced painters as judges. Contests with a small judging team may not permit judges to also enter the contest. When judges are permitted to enter, they do not assess their own work or make podium decisions in categories that include their own work. Judging a larger contest takes hours, and is often conducted late at night to minimize disruption to viewers of the contest entries. It is a lot of fun to be able to see all the entries up close and from different angles, but it is also a gruelling process filled with difficult decisions. Judges know how much work goes into an entry, and it is tough to know that you will be disappointing some people. Note that many judges also work as contest volunteers and/or hobby class instructors, which is a lot of additional work that limits their time to enjoy the event as a whole.

Dark sword judging rc 2018Dark Sword has generously supported convention contests for years. Here owner Jim Ludwig is assisted by Mengu Gregor in choosing the Dark Sword winners at the MSP Open in 2018

Contest Rules
Every contest has rules. While there are commonalities, the rules of each contest are unique, and may change from year to year. The onus is on you to be aware of the rules. Entries that don’t conform to the rules may be placed in a different category than you intended, or completely disqualified from consideration. If it is later discovered that someone did not follow the rules, they might be stripped of their award.

Contest rules include guidelines for each category, and maximum size of piece accepted. There may be rules related to the kinds of bases required or permitted. Most contests require you to be attending the event to enter. Many require that only the entrant have worked on the piece (apart from the use of commercially available figures and components). Others may not have rules forbidding multiple artists to work on an entry, but may only allow one entrant to be named as the creator.

I’ve linked to contest rule information for each convention at the bottom of this page, where I could find it.

Submission and Pick Up
It is very important that you familiarize yourself with the schedule for entering and retrieving entries. Fill out forms in advance if possible. Remember that lots of people try to enter at the last minute. Contest staff reserve the right to stop accepting entries after a certain time even if a line of people remains. Be kind to contest volunteers and make your life easier by entering well before the deadline!

You will not be able to pick up your entry prior to a certain time, and you must retrieve your entry by a certain time. Be familiar with these times and make your event and travel plans accordingly. Venues give the convention or show a strict deadline by which they must be packed up and out of the venue. You may forfeit ownership of your entry if you do not pick it up by the deadline. Events are not under any obligation to mail unclaimed entries or prizes. At conventions, you will be given a receipt during submission that you will need to present when you come to pick up your entries. This ensures that only the owner can pick up miniatures. If you are unable to pick up your entries, you can give your receipt to a friend to retrieve them for you. If you earned an award or prize but were not present to pick it up (or the contest doesn’t have an awards ceremony), you can usually pick it up at the same time as you retrieve your figures.

Award winnersAward ceremonies move fast and can be hard to photograph. It’s often easier to get pictures of award winners with their trophies afterwards.
Left: David Diamondstone accepts a gold Sophie trophy from award presenter (and painter) Michelle Farnsworth.
Right: Michael Proctor poses with his Crystal Brush trophy following the awards ceremony.

Award Ceremonies
Many contests announce winners and award trophies and prizes at a scheduled awards ceremony. Since they know people may be involved in other events, it is generally not required to be present to accept your award. You will be able to pick it up later. (But of course check the rules, some may require you to be present to win!) Whether a contest is larger or modest, it is a lot of fun to be present to receive an award and to see friends be recognized for their work.

First Cut
In podium style contests it’s common for judges to do a first cut. They separate out the most competitive entries, and then rank these to select the final winners. Some contests have a shelf set aside for first cut miniatures so entrants can at least get the feedback of whether they were in the running. Some contests may not have an official first cut area, but you can sometimes get an idea by how figures have been moved around in the display area.

Honourable Mention
Occasionally when there is a very tight race for placement, the piece that didn’t get awarded will be called out as an Honourable Mention. This lets the entrant know that their work was of very high quality and competitive for an award, but they do not receive a trophy or prize.

JudgesA judging team confers at Smoky Mountain Model Convention in 2019.

Judges’ Selection/Mention
Some contests award this regularly, some occasionally, some not at all. This is a piece that the judges loved, but which did not win another award.

Best in Show
Some contests award a Best in Show prize to a single piece or the top three pieces. For some, this might be a judged award. The judges usually consider all of the pieces awarded first place in their category and then select the Best in Show winner(s) from these. In other contests, this might be a popular vote. The Best in Show at the Reaper MSP Open is a modified popular vote contest. Everyone who has entered a piece in the MSP Open can vote for their favourite to win Best in Show. Three total prizes are awarded – overall Best in Show, runner up Reaper, and runner up non-Reaper.

Popular Vote
Some contests or some prizes within a contest are awarded by popular vote. Popular vote via likes is common for online contests conducted on social media platforms like Facebook. In a popular vote contest, viewers or a subset of viewers chose their favourite piece, and the one with the most votes wins. Viewers tend to be drawn to the same kinds of quality as judges, but they are also heavily influenced by other factors. Viewers are more likely than judges to factor in their personal feelings about the sculpt rather than considering only the merits of the workmanship and presentation. Viewers are as strongly drawn to story and character as they are to technical prowess. When considering technique, viewers tend to put a lot of value on techniques that are considered challenging, like freehand or source lighting, but they may not assess these as critically as judges would. They may not recognize the challenge level of more subtle techniques like smooth blending or complex colour use. 

Rc bis ballot box 2018Voting can be serious and thematic!

Manufacturer Awards
Many manufacturers offer awards within the context of a larger contest. For example, Dark Sword Miniatures has offered awards at Gen Con and the MSP Open. The manufacturer decides the number of awards and the prizes, which might range from ribbons, to trophies, to free product, to cash. The manufacturer also determines how their awards are judged. Often it is someone from the company itself, but they may designate or be assisted by one or more seasoned miniature painters.

Manufacturer awards, especially for smaller or newer manufacturers, are often much more lightly entered than the main categories. They are a great opportunity for an up-and-coming painter to get some recognition and win some prizes. It is not uncommon for information on manufacturer awards to be announced some time after the main information for a contest is posted. Keep an eye on the contest information page and follow your favourite companies to keep an ear out for late additions to the awards lineup.

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. Podium contests often divide categories by size and broad type. Examples might include gaming scale Sci-Fi/Modern Single, Monster, Bust, Large, Unit. Open shows group figures regardless of size into Painter (the focus is primarily on painting), Open (the focus includes both sculpting and painting), and Ordinance (vehicles). The military shows separate Painter and Open by subject – Fantasy Painter/Open includes fantasy, science fiction, and horror. Historical Painter/Open includes figures from any period of history, including modern day. Some open shows may have additional categories, such as diorama/vignette.

Entrance Fees
The cost to enter a contest or show varies considerably. Remember that there is a cost to the event to run a show or contest. They have to rent space from the venue and equipment like display cases or tables, and the cost of these can be considerable. Purchasing awards like trophies, ribbons, and medals is another additional cost. Fee options include:

* There is no fee or the fee is included with your event pass.
* There is a separate fee for exhibitors (entrants), but it covers as many entries as you are permitted under the contest rules.
* There is a fee per piece entered into the contest.

Hatchlings gc 2011Awards and winners in the junior division at Gen Con 2011.

Skill Level Divisions
Many contests have a Youth or Junior division or award system to help encourage young people to try out the hobby and participate in contests. It is rarer, but some contests have a Master category. Entrants who have won in the past or sell painted figures may be confined to this division. While this can seem like an equitable way to spread awards a little further, in practice there are painters who make a living selling miniatures who do not paint at the highest levels, and hobbyists who do, so it doesn’t always work as expected/desired.

Some shows have a grand master or similar system, to which one or two new members are added each year. The criteria for being voted into grand master generally includes not only entering consistently high level work over several years, but also having made contributions to the club or hobby as a whole. The MSP Open has the MSP Medallists. The existing members vote in one new member per year. While this is a great honour, it comes with a penalty. If the work they enter into the MSP Open does not merit gold medal level, they do not receive any award. 

Viewing Entries
Contests that are held as part of a gaming convention are usually located in a high traffic area. Entries are placed into glass fronted display cases with shelves from the floor to five or six feet up. Viewing entries can be a crowd jostling experience at busy conventions, and you may have to bend down or stand on tiptoe to see all the pieces. It is common for the largest pieces to be located on the bottom shelves. Others are usually grouped by category. The display cases are locked when the contest staff is not available, and if they are located in a room like a dealer hall, the room is locked as well. At Gen Con the display cases of the main contest are in a busy hall, so they’re still accessible for viewing at odd hours. (And there’s enough traffic to deter thoughts of funny business.)

Adepticon cases 2018The display cases at Crystal Brush 2018 at Adepticon. Display case viewing isn’t always this busy, but it’s not uncommon.

One of the fun features of open style shows is that entries are displayed on tables. Entrants arrange their displays in each category as they wish, which may include risers, backdrops, or other elements. They must do this with the constraints of the room available and the needs of other entrants, however. The display tables are usually raised to approximately chest height. This is convenient for viewing by average height viewers, but may present difficulties to those in wheelchairs or of smaller stature. The tables are typically spread out around an entire room, so viewing tends to be less crowded than around display cases. There is no separation between viewer and entries, which allows you to examine the entries from different angles and without light glare, etc. Volunteer staff are usually on hand to remind viewers not to touch the figures or to ask parents to remove rowdy children who might jostle the tables. Display rooms are open for set hours and locked when closed.

World expo 2017All of those tables are filled with fantastic entries. And that wasn’t even the whole room! World Expo 2017 in Chicago.

The Safety of Your Miniatures
Entrants assume all risk when they enter pieces into a contest. Contest staff make every effort to treat figures with great care, but accidents do happen. Even at a show where you yourself set up the display of your figure(s), you should assume that your piece may be handled by the contest staff. Judges often pick pieces up to look at them from different angles. Figures may be transferred to a side table to be photographed, or judged for a special category or manufacturer award. If more figures are entered than expected, contest volunteers may rearrange the tables to try to make more room. Assemble your figures sturdily and completely, and attach them securely to whatever base or plinth you use. Judges are trained to pick pieces up by the base or plinth to minimize touching the figure itself. In an open show, you can include a sign with your display that a particular piece is fragile or not well attached and that will generally be respected, but bear in mind that you are still taking a bit of a risk with that. This is not feasible for a contest entry in a traditional display case contest.

Tray gc 2013Many contests use padded trays to transport miniatures to the contest case or photograph booth. These were entries at Gen Con 2013.

All of that said, it is rare for a figure to be damaged in a contest in my experience. It happens, but it’s rare. Transporting your figures to and from the event presents more dangers. You need to secure them against the rigours of travel, and also bear in mind dangers like a suitcase falling on your figure case or airport security opening your case without warning. Secure figures in position with bubblewrap, poster tack, double-sided tape or other means. Try to stay close to your case as it is examined at the airport so you can advise about the best way to open it if they want to test the interior.  Be leery of packing fragile pieces that need careful wrapping in your checked luggage, as security staff may open your suitcase and any container within it during the screening process.

List of Conventions with Miniature Contests

Las Vegas Open, Las Vegas, NV: January 28-30, 2022
Information on the miniature contests and hobby class and workshop events is available here.

TantrumCon, Charlotte, North Carolina: February 24-27
Paint a mini onsite at the Paint & Take booth and enter in the contest. Beginner friendly!

Hammerhead Open Gaming Show, Neward United Kingdom: March 5, 2022
Rules for the painting contest which is hosted by Wargames Illustrated.

Adepticon, Schaumburg, IL: March 23-27, 2022
Adepticon 2022 is hosting the first US Games Workshop Golden Demons in years. There will likely also be several other manufacturer contests.
Information, rules, and entry forms for Golden Demon are available.
Hobby events have not yet been finalized and posted.

KublaCon, San Francisco, CA: May 27-30, 2022

Origins, Columbus, OH: June 8-12, 2022
More details pending.

Historicon, Lancaster, PA: July 20-24, 2022
Information page for the painting contest.
Information on events, including Hobby University classes.

Gen Con, Indianapolis, IN: August 4-7. 2022
More details pending.

Nova Open, Arlington VA: August 31 to September 4, 2022

ReaperCon, Dallas TX: September 1-4 2022
MSP Open contest rules. You can also view past entries and awards by clicking the dropdown menu for each year.
There are numerous hobby class events.

Warfaire Weekend, St. Louis, MO: November 4-6, 2022
Information on the painting contest.
Information about hobby events.

List of Shows

Atlanta Military Figure Society Show, Atlanta, GA: February 18-20 2022, for best onsite hotel room rate book by January 31st.

Monson Show, Mosonmagyaróvár, Hungary: April 23-24 2022

Miniature Figure Collectors of America Show, Trevose PA: May 12-14, 2022

Historical Miniatures Society of Northeastern Oklahoma, Tulsa, OK: June 11 2022
The webpage does not seem to be updated. Check their Facebook page for more current info.

World Model Expo 2022, Veldhoven, The Netherlands: July 1-3, 2022

Euroma, Rome Italy: September 3-4, 2022

Military Miniature Society of Illinois, Chicago, IL: October 21-22, 2022

Monte San Savino Miniature Show, Monte San Savino, Italy: November 2022

Euro Miniature Expo (Euro Militaire), Folkstone, United Kingdom: 2022 date pending?
Additional information available on their Facebook page.

The Long Island Miniatures Model Show, New York, NY: 2022 date pending (possibly November)

The International Plastic Modeller’s Society also holds shows, which include categories for fantasy, sci fi, and historical figures, and which are open to figures in other materials than plastic. The Wikipedia page for the IMPS links to the websites for the branches of various countries. The site for the United States branch has a map and a chapter listing for all of the US chapters. And they aren’t all in the most populous states or near big cities. I hope to attend the next one in Knoxville, Tennessee on March 6, 2002.

If you know of other contests or shows than these, please let me know so I can update this page and encourage others to attend!

Many thanks to Jen Greenwald and Michael Proctor for fact checking and suggestions for additions.