Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Painting Competitions : Popular / Public Voting vs Painting Judges... My Experiences and Opinions

In nearly 30 years of painting minis and 20 years of entering painting competitions, I've entered quite a number of gaming tournaments with "Best Painted Army" scoring, and dedicated painting competitions.  The overwhelming majority of those were scored / judged / decided on by either a single judge, or a team of judges.  However, there were a number of them where the final results were decided by popular vote, and I thought I should share my experiences and opinions regarding both methods.

Most of you will be familiar with the standard judging method.  You enter some painted miniatures, there's a designated judge (or team of judges) that examine them, and they score the entries or rank them based on their own criteria.

The other method is to invite the general public to vote or judge the entries instead.  It could be by popular vote (everyone votes for their favourite entry, and then the entry with the most votes wins), or by rankings (assign points to entries, and the winners are determined by total number of points), or perhaps some other way of determining the will of the people.

Both ways of determining the winners have a number of pros and cons, most of which are very dependent on WHO in particular is doing the judging.  A quick rundown of what the advantages and disadvantages of either would be:

-Consistency in judging.

I would give this one to the standard judging method.

If you have designated judges, the same people are doing the judging for all the entries, based on the same criteria, personal biases, and examination "environmental factors" (lighting, time spent per entry, etc).  No entry is judged under different conditions or biases. No entry is skipped over, because it's the judge's duty to examine every entry in the competition.

This is important, because many convention attendees or fellow painting competitors may only give some of the entries the most cursory of glances, or ignore some entries altogether.  They may only favour the ones that are displayed at eye level.  They may only look at the ones in the display cases closest to the gaming tables.  Or they may only look at the models that come from the army or game range that they are fans of.  In short, they may not give every entry a fair shake.

-Standard of judging.

If the competition organizer gets to pick his or her judges, you know what you are getting in terms of a critical eye.  Yes, we all know that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder", and that everyone's opinion of "art" is valid.  However, if the judge is a skilled painter, then they should be able to recognize certain techniques used, and understand how well executed they were.

It's like hiring a home inspector when you've decided to purchase a house.  Or having a trained mechanic look over a used car before you buy it.  These people are professionals.  They know what to look for.  They will recognize if something has been well maintained, or expertly put together.  Sure, it's nice to have your dad or mom look over the house or car and give you an opinion on it, but unless they are experienced and knowledgeable in that field, how reliable is their judgement?

I have entered more than a few painting competitions that were presided over by inexperienced judges, or ones who had only mastered the most rudimentary painting techniques.  I can't tell you how pissed off a contestant can be when their 40-60+ hour flawlessly blended mini gets "beat" by a 20 min drybrush special.  Or if that flawless hand blended mini gets mistaken for and dismissed as a "quickie airbrush job" by someone who can't tell the difference (and also doesn't get how difficult a tool an airbrush is to master!).  Imagine if you entered a cooking competition, came up with a full course meal that belonged in a Michelin rated restaurant, and lost to someone who entered a microwave pizza-pop because the judges themselves still thought that making toast was a neat trick?  Yeah... that's kind of how it feels like...

Yeah, this should TOTALLY win a top-tier cooking competition.

However, if the judges are well respected, indisputably talented painters of the highest caliber, then while they may still be subject to some personal preferences and minor biases, they are not likely to overlook the amount of effort and difficulty that went into a particular project.  Therefore, the final decisions made by the judges may be more widely accepted as well.  A good judge should be able to defend their decisions with more than something like, "Oh, that model was awesome-er than the others."

Popular voting exacerbates these issues.  Not all the voters will be particularly skilled or knowledgeable painters... many of them will be novices.  Provided that the vast majority of voters are good painters themselves, this may still work out well, but if not...

-Hidden agendas affecting judging.

Hmmm... this one could go either way.  Often when a certain piece is favoured to win by the general populace, but doesn't, judges are accused of having some sort of bias or hidden agenda.  I know that at past Golden Demon competitions, one of the more popular assertions was that recently released miniatures are more likely to win, as the company sponsoring the competition (Games Workshop) has a vested interest in promoting their newest products (an assertion that has been disputed by many past GD judges).

If the winner of a competition happens to be a close friend of one of the judges, that too, can be viewed with suspicion.  This is actually pretty hard to avoid though, as the painting community is not all that large, and in the era of social media, everyone seems to know everyone else (especially at the highest levels of the art form).

However, in past painting competitions that I have entered that were determined by "popular vote", agendas were blatantly present as well.  Voters would often vote for their friends, regardless of whether or not that friend had a stronger entry than someone else.  Thus, they became popularity contests, rather than painting competitions.  It often becomes readily apparent when a painting competition devolves in this manner, as the rest of the field is left wondering how THAT entry somehow managed to beat that OTHER entry.  It's perfectly understandable that you wish your friend the best of luck in a painting competition, but it's another thing to derail the purpose of the competition (which should be : may the best entry win) by voting for a less deserving entry.

Allow me to share one such experience I had with popular voting, that may help illustrate this potential pitfall.  Years and years ago (early 2000s), I was competing in a Warhammer Fantasy gaming tournament (the last Vancouver Grand Tournament, in the old school days) with my Chaos Fantasy army.  At the time, I was a pretty serious gamer, but I really prided myself in putting together some of the best painted armies around.  With a number of Best Painted and Best Army Appearance awards under my belt, and this being one of the best efforts I had put into a new army, I figured that I had a good shot at winning this one as well.

However, this would be the first time Games Workshop would leave the Best Painted award to a popular vote.  Having had every past pick picked apart on social media (something that happens with every subjective award... people will always second guess and armchair quarterback your choices...), they decided to absolve their responsibility by picking their ten favourite armies, and then leave the final choice up to the players.

Each player in the tournament was given a vote, and the top ten armies (20 actually... 10 for Fantasy, and 10 for 40K) were put out on display. It made for an impressive sight, and each of the chosen players / painters was justifiably proud to see their armies ooh-ed and aah-ed over by the 150 or so gamers.

Gaming clubs were in full attendance that year, as evidenced by all the bright shirts proudly proclaiming their particular allegiance.  While everyone had a good look at all the entries, it was quite obvious that everyone was voting for the army (or armies) that belonged to their friends, rather than basing their vote on artistic merit or effort.  One club even had their members go around the hall and try and convince everyone they knew to vote for the one member of theirs that had made it into the top 10.  That club also happened to be the largest one in attendance.

And still, I was comfortable with my chances of winning the painting award.  While I didn't formally belong to any gaming club in particular, my time as a former Games Workshop retail shop employee meant that I personally knew almost every gamer in attendance.  As for my army, it definitely drew the biggest crowd around it at the display table, and during every game I played.  Even between games (like during the lunch break), I was hearing many people talk about my army, and telling their friends to go check it out.

In the end, the buddy system won out though.  When the votes were counted up, each of the armies drew votes from their respective gaming clubs and buddies. Mine picked up all the spare, unaffiliated votes.  It ended up one vote short of the prize (which especially burned, since I didn't vote for my own army... it didn't feel right at the time).  Two days later, some of the members of winning club were bragging on all the local gaming forums that their voting power had secured the win... not that their member had the best painted army, but that their club was "da best" because it had the most members in attendance.  After seeing this behaviour on the forums, JP Coulter, the organizer of the North American GW Grand Tournaments, vowed never to use the popular voting method for painting awards ever again.

This criticism is often brought up in regards to online painting competitions.  The Crystal Brush (held annually at Adepticon every year) is the best known painting competition with a popular vote component.  Controversy erupts every year after the results are in, and accusations of vote petitioning and people voting for their favourite artist, rather than favourite piece (regardless of who created it), are always brought up.  Whether or not this actually plays a factor is debatable (this year's overall Crystal Brush winners, for example, were almost universally accepted as worthy winners), but whenever a vote doesn't go your way, it's easy to lay accusations of unfair vote mongering practices (I'm looking at you, Trump!).

Hard to argue with the results of this year's Crystal Brush, when the winner looks this good.


So, in the end, which method of judging and determining winners do I personally favour?  While both have their pros and cons, it's been my experience that using dedicated judges, rather than open public voting, is often more fair.  If your goal really is to hand the award to the best painted entries, then you have a better chance of doing that if you have knowledgeable, experienced, reputable painters as your judges.  It's okay to have a dedicated "People's Choice" award for the entry with the most votes, but the "Best Painted" award really should go to the one that truly is the best painted, and usually that takes a good eye to pick up on that.  Better yet, if you have two or three really good judges, it can potentially counterbalance any personal biases of any one judge, bettering the chances of a well considered and well regarded result.

On a related note : Want to know what goes through a painting judge's mind?  I've got a pair of articles on the subject, one more from the purely painting competition judge's point of view, and one from the gaming tournament paint scoring point of view:



If Chuck Norris ever judges a painting competition, don't argue with the results.  It may be the last mistake you ever make.


  1. Good article Kelly. How to score painting competitions is always tricky. I personally prefer judges to popular vote myself. I hope I'll see you at attack-x again this year.

    1. I'll be there, working the Sable Shield painting competition again this year.

      Trophies are being worked on as I type this. Let's see if you can't bring home a second shield, or if this is the year you get de-throned!

  2. Great article about judging.
    I always wondered about Adepticon and the Crystal Brush. I have a feeling that the judges will give an award to the best painted pieces even if public opinion is not the highest. Those judges are top notch and some of them have been trained by the military modelling societies on judging competitions.
    Plus, the lighting in the display case is terrible. The photographs of the miniatures have the exposure lightened so you can see the full range of color. Sometimes this makes a model look more colorful than it really is.

    1. If the judging is even partially calculated based on online voting, then it's imperative that the organizers try their best not to manipulate the photos unfairly... it's one thing to boost lighting and contrast a bit on ALL the entries in order to see them better, but it's another thing if, for some reason, some entries get better photo-retouching than others. It gives those entries an unfair advantage.

      That's why in-person judging is still the least controversial. If all the models are viewed and judging by the same people, under the same lighting conditions, at the same time, then you've removed many of the variables that could lead to inconsistent judging.

      I do like how the Crystal Brush usually has very highly regarded painters as in-event judges though. The more respected the judge, the more likely their decisions will be respected. They have the experience (both as a judge and as a competitor), and knowledge of technical and artistic merit, to make the right decisions. They are far less likely to fall for cheap gimmicks and painting shortcuts than an amateur judge / painter would be.

  3. Good article Kelly. How to score painting competitions is always tricky. I personally prefer judges to popular vote myself. I hope I'll see you at attack-x again this year.