Thursday, 7 February 2013

Explanation of judging process for painting competitions

Well, no coffee and / or breakfast yet.  However, I'm up (kinda), and I feel the need to explain the judging process a bit before moving on to the next GottaCon 2013 Miniature Painting Contest entries.

People always say that judging in painting competitions is subjective... "the eye of the beholder" and all that.  Well... yes and no.  It's true that no painting judge is entirely objective.  However, there is a bit of a process that you need to understand in order to improve your chances of being in medal contention.

When viewing a large number of entries, a judges eye will pass over them fairly quickly at first.  Just as most of the 'con goers did, we circle the display cases, and our eye picks out certain things.  That's why your models need to POP at an arm's length distance.  There needs to be something really nice that works at that viewing range.  Often it's a massive amount of contrast.  Sometimes it's amazing freehand.  A nice display base helps elevate the entry over the surrounding ones, and if it's detailed, then it also adds interest.  If your models don't stand out somehow when placed amongst a crowd of other models, then it's likely to have a slimmer chance of getting the judge's attention.

Next, judges examine the models up close to try to pare down the contenders into a small manageable number... usually 6 or so (double the number of medals, typically).  This is what I like to call, "The Final Cut".  The easiest way to do so (at least, in good concience) is to do so on technical merit.  That means that any kind of imperfection is a good excuse to eliminate your entry from being in the top 6.

Sloppy brushstrokes?  Down in the standings you go.

Crosseyed model?  Yeah, better luck next time.

Unfinished bases?  How can I pick you over someone who actually FINISHED their models?

Skipped a step or two?  Could have been a contender, if only you had added some much needed blacklining, or dullcote to kill the shine from overuse of inks.

You see, judges feel guilty when they knock entries out of contention.  We feel for the artists, since we're artists ourselves.  We know how it feels to put lots of time and effort into something, feel pretty good about it... only to have someone else disagree with your choices and value your skills / efforts less highly than you do.

Eliminating entries based on technical merit makes this a bit easier on us.  It's easier to say to a person, "Man, you could have been one of the top 3, if only you had removed that ONE remaining visible mould-line running along your model's bicep!"  It means that the painter is skilled enough that they COULD have won, but for one or two slight misteps / omissions.

Just as a personal (and painful) example, I once managed to pay for a plane ticket and hotel room out in Toronto for the Canadian Games Day and Golden Demon awards way back in 2002.  I brought 5 entries with me, and due to a massive mistake made on one entry the night before (I was trying to make some last-minute touchups), only entered 4 catagories on the day of the competition.  I placed fourth through sixth in all four catagories, but speaking to the two judges at a staff party afterwards (I was no longer a GW staffer, but knew enough people to get in), the Eavy Metal painters told me that one entry in particular was just about to be given the silver demon, when they noticed that my bolter barrels weren't drilled out.  One silly little oversight cost me the chance to call myself a Golden Demon award-winning painter for the rest of my life.  After shelling out a huge chunk of my savings to get across the continent to compete, it was incredibly frustrating, but at the same time, very understandable.  I could not fault the judges at all, and they made the right call.

Still, my buddy Jason Dyer still bugs me about it every time he sees me.  Thanks man.  I think he's just bitter that I got closer to winning the much coveted Demon than he did.  ;)

Judges also look for some visible display of a painters overall painting level.  I'm a fairly knowledgeable painter... I've tried wet blending, progressive glazing, layering, feathering, airbrushes, precision washes, edging, and (*shudder*) drybrushing.  I know a big bag of tricks for achieving highlights and shades, and can usually recognize which ones another painter has used.  I also know which ones are the most challenging to pull off well.  An entry that shows use of a quick wash and drybrush is not going to place as highly as one that had buttery-smooth wet blends and time consuming progressive layers of thinned down glazes.  Not only does the drybrushed model represent a fraction of the time spent on the blended model, but it also shows a much more elementary skill set utilized.  It's also likely to not look as nice.

I've also noticed that most hobbyists get distracted by painting gimmicks.  Things like OSL (object source lighting), NMM (non-metallic metallics), and even SENMM (sky-earth non-metallic metallics) are very cool effects one can achieve with some practice, but they need to be done in the right context.  I've seen WAAAYY too many models where OSL was simply not necessary ("Gah... another glowing lava base?  What, do all Space Marines walk over 2 minute old lava fields when engaging the enemy?").  These tricks are good for catching the viewer's eye, and drawing them in, but if I consider them distractions if overused or ill-placed.  It's like driving downtown with your monster truck to get groceries, or going 5 km an hour down Robson street (Vancouver's version of Rodeo Drive) on your Ducatti motorcycle.  Nice ride, but you're a douchbag showoff, and deserve my contempt, not my admiration.

Lastly, many judges are pretty jaded people.  We've seen plenty of models, whether it's in person, online, or in print.  We often see many of the same models, with the same paintjobs, by any number of different artists. We get mentally tired of seeing the same thing, just like you would.  We need something new and refreshing to catch our attention, and wow us.  Something different to excite us.  And that's really hard to do, especially considering that I'll see hundreds, if not thousands of painted models in any given week or month.  Since we're viewing your stuff in person, you have an immediate advantage over the stuff we've seen online or in print, but it's also easier for us to nitpick the details (no Photoshop).  If you can think of something that no other painter in the competition is going to try, perhaps that might help.  However, if you think you didn't pull it off 100%, maybe consider entering something else that might not have been as ambitious, but was technically better.  At the end of the day, it's still a painting competition first and foremost.  Not a gimmick contest, not a conversion contest, and not a basing contest.

That being said, if there are two equally well painted entries, but one has a neat conversion or base, it will get the edge.  However, they have to be equally as well painted (or better) than the rest... conversions and bases are tie-breakers, not deal makers.  They won't be valued over a better paint job by an experienced painting judge.

So, after reading all that, you may get the impression that painting judges are out to get you.  We're looking to bash your beautiful work.  It's our job to crush your dreams and aspirations, and step on your fragile egos like a steel-toed boot crushing a butterfly just emerging from it's crysalis.

Ummm... well... what can I say?  It's a hard job, but someone has to do it.

Look, I have nothing but admiration for anyone entering a painting competition.  You've already earned my respect for just handing your beloved works of art over to us.  I've been there more times than you know.  During my professional painting years, I used to enter a painting competition of one sort or another every month or so, and only placed in a handful.  I've travelled down to the States to compete, flown across an entire continent to compete, shipped entries to GW HQ for various White Dwarf competitions, and even entered a number of online painting competitions.  I've entered competitions that I had no chance at all to win.  It takes guts to compete.

However, win or lose, it's ALWAYS been worth it, to me at least.  Competing pressures you to finish models.  It also gives you the extra urgency to make you push yourself to new levels, and master new skills.  It makes you think outside the box, and outside your comfort zone.  And if you're lucky enough to get any kind of feedback from the judges, it gives you new directions to develop your talents.

Of course, one of the toughest parts of competing is that you are not painting to satisfy your own sensibilities, preferences, and art style.  You are painting to satisfy someone else.  You will need to master styles far outside your own to demonstrate technical mastery, but infuse it with your own style in order to make it stand out from the others.  And that's insanely tough.

Anyway, I've rambled on enough for one blog entry.  I hope this gives you some insight to the judging process, which will hopefully improve your chances of winning.  Of course, like the cliche goes, winning isn't everything, but sometimes it's nice to have a shiny trophy, medal, or ribbon in your fig case next to your models.  It's a tiny bit of sweet validation for all your hard work, and it can get very addictive.  That drive to win has one good side to it... it can motivate you to continually get better.  Just make sure you're still having fun painting... that still comes first.


  1. Very good write up. This gives me a target to aim for next year :D

    1. Thanks Ryan. There are many people out there that don't seem to know what's going on in a judge's mind, and so they keep making the same mistakes over and over again. After a few competitions where they don't win anything, they then get discouraged and never enter anything ever again.

      This is a crime, as far as I'm concerned. Entering painting contests forces you to get better, and if you quit, you'll likely continue to paint exactly as you've always done before (ie your painting skills will stagnate). If everyone had some idea how judges thought, they would realize that just about anyone can win... it just takes a lot of time, dedication, and a ton of perserverence.