Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Painting Competition Entries: The Shotgun Approach

I always say that winning an award shouldn't be your one and only goal when entering a painting competition.  The true value of entering competitions is for the experience, the motivation, and the camaraderie that competitive painting gives you.  Simply competing makes you a better painter, and I firmly believe that.  It doesn't matter if you think you have a chance at winning or not, the act and effort of pushing yourself to the best of your ability in order to enter a model that showcases your hard work and talent is enough of a reason to enter.

However, what if you REALLY want to win?  You know you're up against some stiff competition... fellow artists whose work you respect, and yet you still want to give yourself the best chance of spanking their butts?

For a no-holds-barred competition entry (not just "Oh, I'm really proud of something I just painted, and maybe I'll throw it into the competition and see how it does"), I think you need to take what I call, "The Shotgun Approach".

This is my PAINTBRUSH!!!

What is the Shotgun Approach?  It's not a precision sniper shot directed at a particular judge's one weakness.  Instead, it's a massive blunderbuss blast to all the possible nerve endings.

After all, every judge has their own personal biases, and certain artistic sensibilities.  One judge is consistently wowed by impressive freehand, another judge puts the importance of seamless blending above all else.  Perhaps one judge loves weathering effects, but maybe you get a judge who goes nuts over back-story infused entries.  If you don't know what kind of judge you will get, your entry needs to hit ALL the bases. Like a duck-hunting shotgun, you are basically trying to throw every trick you know up into the air, in hopes that something in your entry will connect with the judge and bring you the win.

For this to work, it will take considerable pre-planning, and sufficient skill in various tools and techniques.  A shotgun entry will be a sterling example of everything you know about miniatures, and it will take time, imagination, and considerable effort.

In our local painting scene of Vancouver, Canada, there are painters with reputations for excellence in one area or another.  They specialize, and have certain strengths that put them far and above the average painter... in that one aspect of painting.  If I was to try and think of a reason why this is the case, I would have to say that the majority of painters in Vancouver are relatively new... it's a pretty young crowd overall, and if you've only been painting for a short number of years, then pushing yourself to mastery of one aspect of painting is achievable with a considerable amount of blood, sweat, and tears.  However, it's hard to get good at EVERYTHING if you haven't been around as long as some.

Now, I'm not a world-class painter.  Locally, I've done pretty well, completed a number of pieces that I'm very proud of, and even made a living at it for a number of years.  But those years of 40-60 hour work weeks drained the enjoyment out of painting over time.  I got burnt out in the hobby, and let my brushes collect dust for nearly a decade.  Even had I continued to push my talents on a daily basis, it would have been an incredible feat to keep up and perhaps catch up to my painting idols of the day.  However, without constant practice and constant dedication to improving my craft, there was absolutely no way I could reach my full potential.

But here's the thing... I kept lurking in the painting scene.  The Internet allowed me to constantly check up on what was going on, and watching the trends.  I did paint here and there, and try out a few new things every so often.  I would follow other painters, check up on their WIPs ("works in progress"), read their tutorials, and try and replicate some of their techniques the same way the at-home cook follows the recipe of a celebrity chef.

My idol

Over time, this accumulated experience from all this tinkering has given me a deep and varied skillset.  When I finally got around to really taking painting seriously again, I was able to take classes with master painters such as Mathieu Fontaine and Meg Maples, and that has only broadened and strengthened my repertoire of painting skills, and given me more familiarity with various tools that I hadn't worked with before (weathering powders, glazes, airbrushes, resins, mediums, etc.).  Most importantly, those classes re-energized my desire to get better, and gave me extra confidence going in to painting competitions.

So when I decide to put together a competition-worthy model, I can hit it with a number of different techniques, and have a pretty good chance of catching the judge's eye.  You may still be beaten out by an entry that exceeds your skill in one particular aspect or another, provided that it's the aspect that the judge of the day values most of all.  But if you don't know what kind of judge you will get, the shotgun approach gives you the best overall chance of at least getting in to the final cut.

Is it more time-consuming?  Hell yeah.  I've done up models that had some of my best blending ever, and instead of being able to call it a day, I've only called it half-done.  After that, I've poured hours and hours into adding freehand, doing up some weathering, adding OSL (object source lighting) effects, and throwing every other trick, technique, special tool, and even every gimmick I could think of at it.  Then when THAT was done, I sunk a huge amount of time into some sort of eye-catching base or display stand.  In the end, I could have probably done up 3-4 competition-worthy (or at least display-worthy) entries in the same amount of time as that one entry.

Almost done?  Not even close...
Closer, but still a long way off.
Hours later, this is still nowhere near finished.
Probably needs more cowbell...

But I think it's worth it.  If I knew in advance what kind of judge I was dealing with, I could target that judge's particular weakness specifically, and not worry about any other aspect that didn't really impress him / her.  It would certainly save me a ton of time and effort.  But when you have an unknown judge, you go in with everything you've got.

Karol Rudyk's 2012 Slayer Sword winner.  The ultimate "Shotgun Approach" entry.
Kickass base?  Check.
Impeccable blending?  Check.
Convincing special (weathering and gore) effects?  Check.
Incredibly intricate freehand banner?  Check.
Expertly reposed and remodelled kit?  Check.
This entry does everything but fly around the convention centre on its own.

And if I still lose?  Well, I've still got a kickass model that I can still be very proud of.  But most importantly, I've pushed myself and my talents in not just one single aspect of painting / modelling, but in EVERY aspect of painting / modelling.  It means that I can't help but become a better and stronger painter in every regard, and if I continue to compete in this manner, I will be a well-rounded painter with no one real weakness.

I never go in to a competition with any guarantee of a win, but I do try to give myself a fighting chance.  The only thing that is 100% guaranteed is that I will probably walk away from the competition as a MUCH stronger painter.  To me, that's success.  That's as tangible a reward for hard work as any trophy.

So the next time you enter a painting competition and don't walk away with a prize, don't blame the judge for not valuing your particular talent or specialty enough.  Not all people have the same eye for miniature art.  Figure out what it was that the winning entry had that was better than your own entry, and work on shoring up that aspect of your painting.  And seek out new ways of painting and practice the heck out of them so that you can hit your next competition entry with a myriad of tricks that will catch ANY judge's eye, no matter their personal preferences.


  1. Great article, I love the memes! I have often been guilty of ignoring the "painting" part of the painting competition, attempting to wow with conversions and scratch builds. I learned the hard way that sculpting can't win a painting competition alone! I also agree he scene in Vancouver is perfect just because it's so new and everybody is learning new things not sticking to one style or another. Good luck with the cowbell

    1. I don't think your painting is letting down your sculpting in any way. Of all the painters in Vancouver, I think you've been progressing the fastest of all of us, and have demonstrated the most open mind to a variety of tricks and techniques.

      If I've got a phobia in miniature art, it's definately sculpting. The whole process scares the crap out of me, in part because it's SO different than painting. Painting I get. Sculpting? Every time I've tried it, I've ended up feeling defeated and disappointed. The funny thing is, I keep buying new sculpting tools and mediums, thinking that if I can just find the right toy, I'll turn a corner. However, things don't work that way... I'll just have to keep trying and at some point perhaps I'll make a huge breakthrough.

      However, if there's something that I've noticed about the Vancouver painting crowd, it's that people fear freehand the most. That's why I always try and add some element of freehand to my models. It sets them apart from the competition, and shows judges that there's at least one thing on my resume of tricks that others might not have.

      On that note, I've got a "getting started on freehand" article in the works (amongst others I'm working on). There are tons on the Net already though, so don't hold your breath waiting for mine. My advice is that getting good at ANYTHING is a progression of little tiny baby steps, so set reasonable goals for yourself when first starting out, and work your way up to more ambitious works as you go.

  2. Good advice. Way too many people in anything competitive that has some sort of subjectivity (whether that be the business world or mini painting) immediately go to making excuses and explanations for why they didn't win or get what they wanted (wasting effort and mental energy) instead of trying to look for what they need to do in order to achieve what they were originally hoping to accomplish. Miniature painters at all levels, from tabletop painters looking at someone else's army on the table to crystal brush competitors, are no different.

    1. I've been guilty of that attitude before. It's a completely understandable ego-defense response to NOT winning any sort of subjective competition. You tell yourself that the judge failed to appreciate your hard work, talent, approach, or the subtle nuances that you put into your work. Once you've convinced yourself of this, then you feel like it was the judge, not YOU, that failed on some level.

      Well, maybe there's some truth to that. However, thinking that way is not going to help you find the drive to push yourself harder, learn more, practice more, and open your mind up enough to somehow get better. The harder approach (but the better one, in my opinion), is to figure out what exactly the winning entries had over yours, and see if you can capture that element somehow. That way you have that much better a chance to win any given competition, against any given competitors, with any given judge.