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MSP Open Judging - What you were afraid to ask

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I'll add a few thoughts from the judge's side of the experience.


I prefer to give higher than lower scores. I don't mean that I score up (I think Kris' stat keeping puts me thoroughly in the Goldilocks range of judges, not too tough, not too soft). What I mean is that I know people have worked hard on their entries, and I'm very conscious while judging that lower scores are likely to be disappointing. I'd prefer to make people as happy as I can. So I take a long look and a hard think to make sure before I write down a lower score. 


I am more likely to overcompensate in an effort to be fair to someone I might not like so much as a person. Those are rare cases, I'm not one to take against people, but it happens. Usually when I call for the alternate is when I've given a fair amount of feedback to the artist during the WIP stage, since it's hard to look at something you're pretty familiar with with fresh eyes.

For the people who prefer a more subtle or realistic style who receive comments about contrast... Contrast covers a whole whack of stuff. It's not just deeper shadows and brighter highlights, though that is often an issue in our field of painting. Just as important is where you put those highlights and shadows, and in what amount. It's counter-intuitive, but if you have wide areas of shadow and highlight and a fairly small area of midtone, the piece appears to have lower contrast. If you have a broad area of midtone and the really dark shadows and really bright highlights are kept to very small areas, that's when you start to get the 'pop' people talk about, and it doesn't necessarily look cartoony or extreme. Applying highlights and shadows in a very even fashion over the piece also dampens contrast. (What I mean is, highlighting/shading every cloak peak/depression up to the same level.) If shallower peaks and folds get softer highlights and shadows, the darker shadows and brighter highlights on the more dramatic folds have more effective contrast. To be able to control placement to that degree, plus paint smoothly (or with whatever texture is appropriate to the material), plus have the eye to know how dark/light to go where, is no small feat, and that's why it's the kind of thing that starts bumping you up the medal track when you start to pull it off. 

You can create a different kind of contrast with the colours used in shadows and highlights, as well as what basecoat colours are used in different areas. The Europeans do this a LOT, and it may not be obvious to spot. Contrast can also be created by varying the saturation level of colours, though that's a little trickier. Once I started using more colour variation in my shadows, as well as the placement stuff I talked about above, I found I did not need to use highlight mixes near white and shadow mixes near black to get an effective level of contrast in my piece. 

Another issue is that it's common for beginner and intermediate painters to make all their midtones midtones. ;-> What I mean is, if you painted on all the basecoats and took a black and white picture, the various areas would appear as fairly similar shades of gray. It helps a lot to put a medium value colour next to a darker or lighter one and visually split up the areas of the miniature in that way. Black/darklining helps in a similar way. Our figures are small, anything we can do to help the viewer identify what the figure is and where and what the various portions of it are (clothes vs. weapon vs backpack, etc.) helps. Likewise, the small size means we do need to exaggerate a little on contrast for it to 'read' more easily to the viewer. Remember that when you are painting you are looking at something for hours, usually under bright light, and often with magnification. To catch someone's eye on a contest table/cabinet, forum post, CMON entry, etc., remember that that person's initial look is going to be a few moments. You need to hook them in those moments, and contrast is a very effective worm to bait your hook with. Then they want to look closer and start seeing your subtly of brushwork, the details of the story in your diorama, etc. 

So the comment 'needs more contrast' can actually be covering a lot of ground in terms of what we're doing with paint, and you may need to do some thinking to figure out which of those might best apply to your situation. Everything we're doing can be summed up to trying to recreate the way light behaves on various materials and textures, where it makes things lighter and darker. Doing that is a rest of your life kind of project as a painter. It involves leveling up your eye and your colour sense as well as your painting hand. 

I would also suggest this exercise to people who are nervous about too much contrast or being unrealistic or cartoony - are you really painting in the way you like looking at? Download the pictures from your piece at the show, and then 5-10 pictures of pieces you like from other artists that feel are in the kind of style you paint. Put them in a graphics program (GIMP is a nice free one). There should be a little eyedropper tool. You can put the tip of the eyedropper onto a colour and get a little sample of it, then paint that sample into a blank page document. Now go through the figures by other artists and pick out some of their darkest shadows and brightest highlights, then do the same with the picture(s) of your work. You may find that you are not painting as much contrast in your own work as you are comfortable with seeing on other people's. 

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What an excellent thread.  Thank you Kris (heisler) for all of your detailed responses.  I cant agree with more with every point he has made as well as Rhonda's (Wren) additional comments.  Sorry that I have been so late to the conversation as real world work has been a little consuming since RCON.


First off I would like to thank everyone that entered the competition.  I was so great to see so many entries this year.  There was so MANY pieces that were inspiring...  Thank you!!!  Really!!  Thank you...  I honestly felt like this year was one of our strongest years ever..


On to the Judging:   


When I was appointed ED of the MSP competition a few years ago I did accept with reservations.  I truly have a love/hate with competitions but did really like what Reaper was trying to do with the Open system will still maintain the 1-3 place system (Sophies).  I wanted to as much as possible create an environment that encouraged the grow of the hobby and the further development of you guys, "THE ARTISTS."  I have entered competitions in the past where I have felt it was to biased on one style or another where creative approaches were not appreciated. My goal is to not have that be the case with RCON - MSP.


Kris and I do agonize every year on the judging teams we select trying to balance different backgrounds and styles. It is a balancing act that we tweak every year and every year I hope we achieve a fair balance. 


I feel that when you enter a piece you are exposing a little of your personal side ( I know I feel that way).  My hope is that when it comes to the judging process that you feel that your piece was evaluated fairly and no preferential or differential treatment was applied.  Kris and I really instill this thought into the judging teams.  We are evolved in a fantastic hobby and our goal is have this little competition as a springboard and encouragement and growth. 



A big thanks to Kris again. He is really the foundation of this competition and helps me in so many ways to ensure that it runs so smoothly....


THANK YOU HEISLER!!!!  You are a great friend...



If you have any questions that you would rather not post in public you can always message me via the forum... 


Oh, and if you have not read Wren's post above please read it.  If you have,read it again.  I have read it now 4 times and I cant agree with it more.  Such great opinions and advice that a painter at any level would benefit from following...



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Cash - that whole discussion of contrast was one of the main things that led to the creation of the Level Up class. I had a discussion with a friend who was so frustrated at getting the 'needs more contrast' comment after he tried going to white and black in his highlights and shades that he pretty much gave up on painting. In talking to him I started unpacking that comment in my mind and realizing that it was a lot more complex than just deeper shadows/brighter highlights.

Another spur was painting the same figure as Jen Haley around the same time. I could see that the blending quality of mine was within 10-15% of hers, but that overall the quality of hers was much better than mine. So I had to start thinking really critically about what were we doing differently that had nothing to do with paint application.

Being an intermediate painter is hard, and it took my dense brain years to figure some stuff out. I can but hope that the class helps people fast track through some of that annoyance so they can get straight to the working on stuff part.

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/adds class to list.


I know I'm striding in the right direction, but man does it feel like all directions sometimes that lead me back to square one.


I painted a flat at the con, thought I did black and white contrast well too. Got home with it and thought someone,had switched out flats. I was so mad! No, I'm just a derp that needs more contrast.

Edited by MissMelons
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Was going to post this in the "US vs Euro style" thread, but I think it may be more relevant to the contrast post by Wren here...


Rhonda is such an endlessly awesome person! Thanks for yet another informative and inspirational write-up!


Some more fuel for teh conversation...my output has gone waaay down over the last two years but I've become far more interested in following the rules my brain keeps expressing to me. Chiaroscuro, the interplay of light and shadow has become paramount. On the one hand it's difficult because I was repeatedly told at Reapercon by EVERYONE to learn smoother blending. But to me that's not as important as dramatic lighting and properly toning a model, so I intentionally put blending on the back burner. Will this cost me medal ranks, offers to be an instructor, etc? As I said, the most important thing for me was connecting the physical act of painting with the visions I have (it's a pretty vast gulf, look at my ZERO dioramas). But it's also tough because accolades are awesome and having some kind of "I'm level X" is a natural thing, wanting to see how you stack up against other talented people when you're putting so much effort into improvement.


Anyway, contrast. Jeff Watts at one point said color is the last thing to worry about. Get the values right. If you look at the project I think comes closest to my vision, KD Zachary, a piece I was fooling around on and stumbled across a pretty cool method:






On the whole the contrast looks decent, but the low values are actually pretty squashed. There are some colors I used in shadow that were too tonally similar when you remove the hue. Some of this may be due to photography (look at the painted black base and black plastic stand vs the really dark fabric). But here's the same model without any saturation:






Not too bad, but it would benefit from more work toward the overall contrast of the piece (making the skirt swoop even more into shadow, for instance) and from pushing my lowest values even lower (as I don't want to push the upper values anymore on an overall dark piece).


Another example of tonality is the Oathsworn Mage. Here I really went in with the intent of having a mini lit only by two light sources she was holding. I had to very carefully keep the initial paint job extremely low in value and chroma (and even that I struggled with, where is that ambient light coming from!?).






The dramatic color contrast of complementary hues is an intentional play. I had also intentionally not pushed Zach's lamp light and wanted to play with that more, so starting from a much darker base piece I was able to really lay in a nice tonal punch. This one has such a dramatic contrast in hue, but it's the value contrast that sets the platform for that to work well:






See how well this effect works, even without the hues at all? Of course, this is a falsely exaggerated piece. But I wanted to get to those extremes so I could try to better incorporate that into my normal painting. And this highlights the one spot I'm unhappy with and should go back and fix, the blue light on the wall...as it shows a weakness whether there is hue or not, it takes away from the atmosphere of the piece, and that's where a lack of blending bugs me :)


Folks who have known me a while may have heard me rant a bit about shadows in photography. They can make for a nice picture, but my goal is to have a model 100% accurately shaded with paint, not allowing the lights needed for photography to fake in shadows I didn't paint. It's not entirely possible, but it's a hard and fast goal of mine for anything other than a light, fun paint job. It's also really difficult at small scale :) That may be part of what started my journey into drawing and oil painting, on a white canvas, there is only what I put there and no hiding behind 3d objects or sculpted details. And it really pushes the lesson of values and seeing color!


So to Aryanun directly, I'd say find your inner vision for artistic expression. Mine was initially summed up as "I want to paint minis so they look like a Brom or Frazetta piece". And year of study and practice still has me chasing that goal, which is still very far distant. If I lived in a place where instruction in mini painting was possible, I'd jump at the opportunity. It's the thing I envy the Euros for, really. The physical closeness of the community of top end painters and availability of classes, workshops and informal interactions on a regular basis.

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It's sometimes hard to remember that you're there to get critiqued and complimented really. I think as painters we like being told "You do this well" though personally the "This REALLY needs work" is a tougher, even if accurate statement "Higher highlights, darker shadows, smoother blends" So say we all. I like playin' with freehand myself, its a balance issue of wanting to improve that, and smoother transitions.

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With the ability to have levitating objects and the bases for those getting better, would using such a device hidden within the base of the model/diorama to make a flying object/person/creature actually levitate add or detract?

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I imagine it depends on the project. And how long it would take Kris to knock it off the base :)

Would be cool, but I'd also worry about people knocking it off the base

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Between this thread and the Euro's vs US thread I've gotten a lot of information to think about.  I'm not as concerned about my level.... Yet as other's have said contrast is a word that get slung around a lot.  My judges were great at explaining what they meant by contrast on my piece.  Just having access to a group of judges willing to explain that to me has been educational.  Allowing myself to take a critical view of the mini's I look at is great advice.  Thanks for starting this thread Heisler, and to all the artist who have added their input on the process.

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I imagine it depends on the project. And how long it would take Kris to knock it off the base :)


I was going to say something along the lines of the only detraction I can see being increased fear of damaging the piece. (Or being near Kris when he does it. ;->)

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I imagine it depends on the project. And how long it would take Kris to knock it off the base :)


I was going to say something along the lines of the only detraction I can see being increased fear of damaging the piece. (Or being near Kris when he does it. ;->)



Right, so a sub-title to the piece "Kris is not allowed to touch" would be in order.  :;):  :devil:

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