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Some General Advice for Contest Entries


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Hey fellow painters! We’re a few short weeks out from the Reaper MSP Open. I am really looking forward to seeing what everyone brings. Seeing so much creativity is a big highlight of the show for me!


For many years I have offered feedback on people’s minis after the contest, in classes, or just hanging out at the artist table. I expect I’ll be doing so again in a few weeks. But this year I thought I might also try offering some general advice in advance. These comments are based on the feedback topics that come up most often. (NOTE: The is unofficial advice, it's not being offered on behalf of anyone but myself.)


I know some of you have heard similar critique more than one year running, or from more than one critiquer. Which I know from experience is very frustrating! Trust me, I still get told that my work needs more contrast. And I’m still struggling to try to put that advice into practice! So I would like to start with a radical suggestion - 


Go Big!


This one is for all the people who’ve received criticism about insufficient contrast, or their OSL not being dramatic enough, or another effect appearing too subtle. So many people worry about being too over-the-top or ‘unrealistic’ while they’re painting, and then after the contest receive feedback that their work is too subtle or subdued. So why not try the opposite for a while? Or try it for even just one figure?


Go big! Exaggerate! Be outright ridiculous! Put so much contrast in there you think people will be flabbergasted. Paint that OSL effect so brightly your viewers will need to wear shades. Exaggerate the action of your diorama story. Whatever you’ve been critiqued for not doing enough of in the past, try not only doing that thing, but dial that thing up to 11.


Then bring your crazy exaggerated piece along to the show. Put it in the contest. Bring it with some pieces you’ve worked on in your usual way. See which gets picked for judging. Take a look at the photos that are taken of all the entries and see which style looks more effective in photographs. Show the work of both kinds to your friends and your favourite teachers and see what kind of response you get.


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.


Comparison Study


If you entered the MSP Open last year, I invite you to try this exercise. Go to the http://www.reapercon.com page and look at the contest picture entries from previous years. Find entries by other painters that were awarded the same level as you. Then scroll through and look at some of the entries that placed the next level up. So if you were awarded a certificate, look at a few other certificate winners, and the compare those pictures to bronze winning figures. Try to identify specific differences. Compare the level of contrast, the use of lining, whether and how the base materials are painted.


Try to find two or three specific things you want to do more like the people who placed a level higher than you did. Look at the pieces you plan to enter. Did you push yourself to do those things? If not, it’s not too late to go back to the hobby desk and try to incorporate them, or even try painting another piece or two.


(I suggest looking at other people’s entries at the same level because it’s always harder to look at your own work objectively, but since it’s been a year, you might also try comparing your pieces from previous years to others as well.)


Read the Rules!


It is always a good idea to study up on the rules, and particularly the nature of each of the categories. https://reapercon.com/contestrules


Try to keep those in mind as you create your entries and decide which category to put them in. Also use that information to temper your expectations. If you put a figure with an elaborate base into the Painters category, the base work is only considered for a small part of the overall score. Regardless of how awesome the base is, the greater emphasis in judging will be on the standard of the paint work. Conversely, if you put a fantastically painted piece in the Open category but it has only a small simple conversion, the paint work is a much smaller component of the judging in that category, and the figure may place a level one or two lower than it would have if it were assessed on the paint alone.


For Diorama, story is critical. It’s not about having a number of figures together on a base. It’s about telling a story and setting a scene. Make sure your figures are interacting with each other and with elements in the scene. Add elements to the scene that contribute to the story or add interest to areas that don’t have a lot going on. Condense the size of the base if you don’t need that much space to tell the story. (The size of a scene base is another case where being as ‘real’ as possible isn’t always the best answer in terms of catching and keeping viewer interest.)


Lining (aka Blacklining)


This is an issue that often comes up in feedback sessions. The various areas of your miniature need to be well-defined for the viewer. This definition needs to be apparent at arm’s length as well as in close up viewing. Using a tool like lining to distinguish one section of a figure from another is particularly important when you have adjacent surfaces that are similar in value. So if you have a pale skinned person with blond or white hair, you need a bit of a line around the face to help the viewer see that this area is skin, and that area is hair.


Darklining is not the only method to achieve that. You can use strong contrast in your shading and get a similar effect. You can make adjacent surfaces very different in value (dark skin, pale hair). Note that generally speaking shading done via washes alone will not be strong enough. You don’t need to use a stark black. You can use a dark version of the colour of one of your adjacent surfaces (use a darker colour of the darkest surface.)


Sometimes people seem to feel like darklining is unrealistic. In actuality, it often simulates a very real situation. Take a look at someone nearby or in a photo. Where their sleeve meets their arm or the hem of their pants overhangs their shoes, you will likely see a thin line of shadow. Darklining is a way to create that effect on a miniature. Even when it isn’t 100% realistic, it helps make a tiny gaming figure more ‘readable’ to the viewer.


It looks like there are number of tutorials on YouTube that will help you out if you want to know more about the nuts and bolts of how to paint lining on your figures.





You’ve probably been told you need it. Maybe you feel like you’re doing it, why can’t people see that? Or maybe you feel like it’s not realistic, why won’t people accept you want to paint in a more realistic way? Or maybe you accept that contrast is a good thing, but you just aren’t having much luck actually doing it. Whichever of the above best reflects your opinion, I have a blog post for you!


First, an example of what more contrast actually looks like on the same figure.



Let’s talk about the issue of contrast vs. realism.



The way we think as we paint can make it harder to paint more contrast (includes additional examples of what more and less contrast look like on the same figures.)



And finally some hands on tips for painting with more contrast.



See you all in a few weeks for a great time at ReaperCon 2019!

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12 hours ago, Wren said:

All you can ask of yourself is to do your best!



Warning: Intense navel gazing ahead.


On one level, I completely agree. Do your best work.


But at some point that platitude arrives at the question of how you define "best". There's a difference between "best in the time that I have" (you could always have started earlier or you could wait until next year and spend more time or you could skimp on sleep in the weeks before the con), "best before I want to become a serial killer" (maybe next year isn't such a good idea after all), "best before I start to really hate this figure" (definitely not painting for next year), best for impressing the judges (is that what is most important to me?), "best for finishing an army" (maybe that's what's important to me?), "best for learning or improving a new skill" (those are fun, but new skills can be weak for earning medals), ....


Michael Proctor is fond of asking whether you could have spent more time on a figure, with the implication that if you had, you would have a better result. I don't actually agree, and I disagree on several levels:

  • There is a point beyond which a piece can be overworked to death. More time does not help with this.
  • It's entirely possible to lose your artistic vision in pursuit of perfect blends and exquisite details. As a painting contest judge, I've seen this exact thing happen. Gorgeous painting; not such good art.
  • There's a real temptation when painting for competition to add "tricks" to impress the judges: OSL, NMM, brocade, NNN, tatoos, radical color shifted blends, whatever. The thing is that these can (at least sometimes) do exactly what you plan for them to do. When well executed, they are impressive to judges.
  • And finally, when you start to feel an obligation to spend more time on a figure, that becomes a major demotivator (at least for me, though I've heard others expess similar sentiments), not just for painting that figure but for painting any figure.

For me, the question at some point becomes whether I'm painting as a hobby and entering the pieces in a competition or painting for competition as a hobby. They're not the same hobbies.


I decided some time ago that I would paint toward several different (and occasionally incompatible) goals:

  • Paint for play. I would pay attention to how I was painting these figures and try things out, but not worry much about the final result.
  • Paint for experimentation. Here is where radical (for me, routine for others in many cases) experiments would take place.
  • And paint for competition. But only do the things that would make the figure look better to me and only for as long as I was enjoying the process. I know that it's at least possible that I could get a more prestigious color of medal with more effort but the cost of that would be too high for what I want out of this hobby. I still find this useful, in that I spend more effort on improving my technique than I would when painting for other purposes, which improves my skill at a much faster rate. But I'm much less likely to find myself needing to take an extended hiatus from painting because I'm mentally exhausted.

I realize that this is perhaps out of place in a thread specifically about competition painting, but it took me time to figure it out for myself and I thought it might be useful to somebody else.

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I know I have a lot to learn about painting, but if I never get to the level of some of these truly gifted painters I can live with that. To me painting is like bowling. I have been bowling for decades, and I have an acceptable average (low 140's). I know I never will be a pro bowler, and will never bowl a perfect game, but I still love to sling the ball. A few times people have approached me about joining a league but I have always said "NO" because people on leagues tend to take the game so seriously it takes the fun out of it. If it got to the point where I really cared about my score and got mad when I didn't do well, it would be time to find another interest to pursue. The same with painting. If I get to the point where I am getting mad because I can't paint well enough or win awards, it's time to quit.

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as with everything there is a balance.  What is good is what you decide is good.  I have seen beautiful pieces and then find out they take 80+ hours to produce and the artist still isn't happy with them.  I have also seen (and done) a 30 minute owlbear and other pieces that look good, are sturdy and do everything you want them to.  I am there to have fun.  Anything that interferes with that needs to be eliminated.  It took me a long time to learn that...

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Those are valuable questions/considerations. And things I take time to explore in discussion in my Level Up class because I do think it's really important. I ask people to think about do you really want to get better in the sense of doing what it takes to get better? Sometimes the answer is no, and it's okay for the answer to be no! I know painters who've figured out what they most enjoy in painting and do that who are very happy, and some others who make themselves unhappy by not accepting that their time/motivation is at odds with their aspirations. 


But I very often get feedback that I write too long and provide too much information at one time, so I thought I'd leave that larger discussion to another post at another time. I'm addressing this advice specifically to those who want to enter the contest with the aim of improving over their current skill levels, and to people who request feedback for the same reason. It's a-okay to paint for all kinds of other reasons than that! It's also a-okay to enter the MSP Open with figures that were painted purely for gaming, or for experimentation, and I'm pretty sure lots of people do just that. 

I myself rarely enter traditional podium placement style contests anymore. The risk/reward benefit calculation of entering a contest once worked really well for me (it got me to finish painting stuff, push myself, or take risks I wouldn't otherwise). For the last five years or so, it has not been as appealing. I'd far rather paint something for a client or a friend, or to experiment with something, since if nothing else, I'll have made one person happy or learned something. (And made money if it's work painting, so then at least two people are happy. ;->) I know a lot of other display painters who'd think that my attitude is silly and dull and they love contests for the chance to be free and crazy with their paint slinging creativity.  The MSP Open and similar show style contests suit me to a tee. I can pick the best of the work I have on hand that I've painted for whatever reason or person and leave it at that. 

I do want to comment on 'tricks' and judging. My experience has been that using effects/techniques perceived as difficult can definitely help out with public voting type contests. People think NMM or freehand or whatever is very challenging, and tend to give more votes to entries that display characteristics they find challenging. I've talked to any number of 'pro' painter judges who would far rather see work with consistently applied skilled brush work that isn't flashy than a piece that's got this effect that looks great but the rest of the mini isn't to the same standard. Or they will spot where someone's gotten something a bit wrong on a 'trick'. (I have analyzed and taught OSL for years. You do not want me as your judge if your OSL is phoned in. ;->) Judges also tend to be well-aware that a little bit of freehand is a great way to cover up a dodgy blend and other things like that. Or they have seen figures where freehand or a 'trick' effect actually pulls focus away from the characterization or story of the piece and dilutes the overall effect. 

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